Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gerson on the Speech.

From CT, reprinted here (because it will disappear):

Michael Gerson: Obama's Speech Rhetorically Flat, but Ideologically Interesting
A former presidential speechwriter examines President Obama's inaugural address.
Interview by Sarah Pulliam in Washington, D.C. | posted 1/23/2009 04:19PM

Former speechwriter Michael Gerson was quick to parse President Obama's speech to the nation on Tuesday, calling it "rhetorically flat" but "quite interesting from an ideological perspective." Gerson's pen was behind President George W. Bush's inaugural addresses in 2001 and 2005, and in preparation, he studied every single presidential inaugural address in American history.

Now a columnist for the Washington Post, Gerson spoke with Christianity Today yesterday about Obama's inaugural address, religious references, and whether he thinks an evangelical should serve in the new administration.

What did you think of the inauguration?

I thought it was surprising. I came to Obama's speech in many ways expecting something that would be rhetorically masterful and maybe ideologically shallow, because of his ideological background, and we got something very different from that.

I thought it was rhetorically flat, uninteresting from a literary perspective, but quite interesting from an ideological perspective. He set out some interesting themes about political pragmatism. It was one of the strongest defenses of pragmatism against ideology in any inaugural address that I can recall. I think that his assurances on national security issues were pretty reassuring. He recognized that we're in a war and talked about defeating our enemies and talked about soft power a little bit with the fight against global poverty — I thought all those things were good. And then his closing theme of renewing America by returning to its oldest values and virtues — he used the word "virtues" — is a traditional inaugural theme, but I think a very good one.

He talked about loyalty, and duty, and responsibility, among other things, and I think that's both an effective message and an important one. In fact it's been the message of most of America's great progressive leaders, whether it's Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, they always talk about recreating our country by returning to its oldest and deepest values. So that was a good theme. But I just wish the speech itself had been better.

What was missing rhetorically?

I found some of the phrasing odd when they tried to reach they did not reach effectively for memorable phrases. The use of the word 'swill' is very odd in the speech. I found a lot of use of cliché language, "gathering storms" and "children's children," and things you would expect to find in a House floor speech. There were some nice moments, but it was very uneven in its quality.

I don't think it made that much difference to the two million people on the Mall — they were into the moment, and I don't think the speech was terrible, but it was a missed opportunity. This was an unbelievably historic moment, and you look for example at the end of that speech, at the mentioning of Valley Forge and those values, and that's fine, but it could have literally been given by any president in American history. There was nothing specific to the moment, nothing that made it the summary of this great, extraordinary cultural progress culminating in an African American president. Maybe he did that on purpose, maybe he didn't want that to be the rhetorical culmination of much of American history. Maybe he just wanted to lower his sights and be less ambitious. But it's hard for me to be a fan of that as a fan of rhetoric.

How does this compare to his campaign speeches?

I think he rose in the Democratic Party because of some very fine speeches that he gave, his speech on the night of his Iowa victory I thought was a brilliant speech. His race speech in Philadelphia I thought was a serious speech, a serious and interesting speech. But now he's given two speeches in the most high profile settings: his convention speech, which was actually very poor — it was unbelievably typical — and now his inaugural speech, which was not that bad, but it wasn't equal to the moment. Somebody's going to eventually notice that this man who has risen because of his speaking ability has not risen to the moment in some very important historical contexts.

How did you prepare for President Bush's inaugural addresses?

I read every single inaugural in American history when I was preparing for the first one in 2001. There were some weak ones, but there was some marvelous rhetoric as well. The story of America is, in many ways, the story of this extraordinary founding flaw, that we were a nation dedicated to liberty that was also a prison for millions of people. It explains the arguments at the constitutional convention, the run-up to a bloody Civil War, reconstruction, civil rights, and in 45 years we've gone from a circumstance in which when Martin Luther King spoke in 1963 civil rights workers were murdered, where African Americans with doctorate degrees where denied the right to vote because of so-called literacy questions that asked how many bubbles are in a bar of soap and how many jellybeans are there in a jar. That is the central story of American history and one of the dramatic stories in world history, the progress we've made. Obama did nothing to summarize that moment. He made one reference to his father, if he had been here 50 or 60 years ago he might have been denied service. Which I thought was fine, but it needed ambitious rhetorical summary and he purposely did not do it.

What about Rick Warren and Lowery's prayers?

I think Rick Warren did a great job, but I also think Reverend Lowery did a great job. I was very impressed with him, because for me, who was looking for this kind of summary moment, it was very nice to have one of the large figures from the civil rights era putting his blessing on this moment in American history and to hear the cadences of civil rights rhetoric in his prayer. I know some people found it a bit much; I found it very much a great rhetorical tradition in America, which I wish I had seen a little more of in Obama's speech.

Did you parse Rick Warren's prayer?

Not really. He made a point of using Jesus' name, which I think is a genuine pluralism. Pluralism shouldn't mean that we have these common denominator situations; it means that everybody should have a voice. I thought that was a strong reassertion of that. Warren was appropriately enthusiastic about the moment. My basic view there for all the controversy is it's a biblical mandate to pray for those in authority, and that's what Rick Warren did.

Obama's speech had several religious references. What did you think of them?

He was completely within the tradition of American inaugural speeches. I mean they often have references to scriptural passages. His were 'setting aside childish things,' which I thought was a very effective line, it called attention to one of his great political strengths, which is he seems like an adult. He has a very mature manner. And he also used the phrase still waters, which I thought was interesting. But you know, there's a little bit of a double standard here.

When George W. Bush used scriptural passages they thought it was somehow a threat to the Constitution and when Barack Obama uses them they're normal rhetorical devices. But I thought it was interesting, the one thing that maybe was unprecedented in the speech was the mention of nonbelievers in the litany. That's something other presidents, including George Bush, have done in other speeches, but not an inaugural address. I think it's a recognition of an electoral reality that you've had over the last few decades, a significant growth in an area of voters identified as nonreligious. That was recognition of reality. It didn't bother me at all but it was interesting. So I thought he made fairly good use of religious references.

Does it matter if Obama has any evangelicals in his administration?

I've never really viewed it that somehow you need some quota of evangelicals. I think the policy matters more.

I do know that the Obama transition team has worked pretty closely with Jim Wallis and some other religious leaders in some early stages of policy development. I'm told that their director of the domestic policy council is very open to faith-based ideas and other things.

The encouraging thing is that Obama comes from a community organizer background and at least understands the role of faith and faith-based institutions in our society and you hope that translates broadly in his administration. But we also know there are elements of the Democratic party that are deeply secular and have been highly critical of any recognition or cooperation with the role of faith-based institutions in our public life, and so I think that's probably a struggle within administration. I hope Obama's viewpoint, at least the one he outlined in the campaign, prevails.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Inaugural Address.

My own favorite address, as I have mentioned many times before, is Lincoln's Second. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson's first, is a meditation in good government. An excerpt:

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

March 4, 1801

Friday, January 02, 2009

Calvin's Institutes in a Year. From Princeton Seminary, in honor of John Calvin's 500th birthday, a way to read the Institutes in a year. (h/t Jim H.). Personally, I'm going for the audio version.