Teddy Kennedy is gallant. He attended the swearing-in of the new president on Tuesday in the midst of serious illness, white-haired and frail—in his jaunty fedora he looked like his father, old Joe Kennedy, in 1939, when he first burst on the scene as the new American ambassador to the Court of St. James. The senator smiled as he walked toward his seat, sweetly blowing a kiss to a friend in the stands. Later, at the congressional lunch, he collapsed.
Four years ago it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who rose from his sickbed to swear in George W. Bush for a second term, and who died 7½ months later of the cancer from which he’d long suffered. Such personal gallantry has long graced our national life, and in its way makes that life possible. And so it should always be noted, with gratitude, and a tip of the hat. As I write I can hear the ambulance that is taking Sen. Kennedy to the hospital. He is a courteous person, much like the Bushes in being an old-school writer of notes and maker of calls, and one suspects very soon we’ll be hearing that he called the new president to apologize for stepping on his story.
All this did have a somewhat subduing effect on the day. But then the Inaugural Address itself was somewhat subdued.
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The joyous crowd, an estimated two million strong, did not seem ready to let President Obama speak when he took the podium; they were cheering, clapping and shouting and didn’t seem to want to stop. The new president seemed prepared for this, and barreled through and on, saying “My fellow Americans” with a quieting authority. The audience settled down. But it was a real expression of the feeling of the day, the wave upon wave of cheers and chants that came from the sea of people.
This is what Mr. Obama said:
In a time when all wonder if our nation’s best days are behind us, we need to know that the answer is no. We continue. We go on. This is not journey’s end.
That, I think, is what the-18 minute speech came down to. Are we in a difficult moment? Yes, it is a time of “gathering clouds and raging storms.” There is “a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” We face great challenges, but “know this, America—they will be met.” How? We will meet them by being who we are. Our success depends on the American “values” of “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” He said, “These things are old. These things are true.” Like those who’ve long fought in our armed forces, Americans have shown “a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”
It was a moderate speech both in tone and content, a serious and solid speech. The young Democrat often used language with which traditional Republicans would be thoroughly at home: The American story has never been one of “shortcuts or settling for less,” the journey “has not been . . . for the fainthearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasure of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” who have created the best of our enduring history
Obama named in stark terms America’s essential foe: “For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror . . . we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” This had the authentic sound of a man who’s been getting daily raw intelligence briefings and is not amused.
It was not an especially moving or rousing speech, but the event itself, the first major address of a new president from a new generation and a previously unrepresented race, was inherently moving. The speech was low-key, sober. There was not a sentence or thought that hit you in the chest and entered your head not to leave. But it was worthy, had weight, and was adult. In fact, Mr. Obama lauded a certain kind of maturity: “In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” This was a call for a new nobility that puts aside “petty grievances and false promises” that have marked the oral culture of our modern political life. He seemed to be saying that the old, pointless partisanship of the past does not fit the current moment.
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” For those with enough years to recognize it, that was an echo of a famous World War II-era song by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Fred and Ginger sang it: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”
We come from a hardy people, from those who crossed the seas, “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth,” and those who fought in “Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.” In that last, the American experience in Vietnam was unselfconsciously valorized by the post-Boomer president. Good.
Domestically, Mr. Obama suggested, somewhat strikingly if now conventionally, that while Ronald Reagan was wrong in saying, in his first inaugural, that “government is not the answer, government is the problem,” Bill Clinton too was wrong in saying, in a State of the Union, that “the era of big government is over.” Such talk, Mr. Obama suggested, is beside the point. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” Programs and policies that are effective should move forward, and those that are not “will end.” He said that those who “manage the public’s dollars” are obliged “to spend wisely . . . and do our business in the light of day.” Greater transparency and spending that is not wasteful will “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
In foreign affairs Mr. Obama signaled a break with Bush policy through the most memorable assertion in the speech: “Our power grows through its prudent use.” “America,” he said, “is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” He suggested a new emphasis on “sturdy alliances.” He lauded “humility and restraint,” and the force of “our example.”
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I don’t know what the networks will use as the sound bite, that rather ugly word, now some 35 years old, that speaks of the short piece of audio- or videotape they will use to show the highlight of the speech, or capture its essence. This is not all bad. When a speech is so calm and cool that you have to read it to absorb it fully, the speech just may get read.
This was not the sound of candidate Barack Obama but President Obama, not the sound of the man who appealed to the left wing of his party but one attempting to appeal to the center of the nation. It was not a joyous, audacious document, not a call to arms, but a reasoned statement by a Young Sobersides.