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