Michael Gerson: Obama's Speech Rhetorically Flat, but Ideologically Interesting
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.