Oratory with feet of clay
Sitting on top of a dusty pile of books in my bedroom I noticed I had a copy of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address from 2009 (the slim volume also contains Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and his two inaugurals). The inner leaf bears an inscription, barely legible but which prompted a memory—the book was a gift, presumably to all Labour MPs (maybe all MPs) from Gordon Brown, Prime Minister. Gordon’s handwriting is notoriously bad, (written in thick felt tip due to his poor eyesight) and at first glance it looked like he’d written ‘in heat’ but I have determined that it reads ‘in hope.’ Gordon must by now be a sorely disappointed man. I note he is speaking more often about the United Kingdom and the mortal threat it faces post-Brexit. I have to say, I can think of no better reason to wish Brexit on than that it leads to the break-up of this increasingly dysfunctional union. I would rather it happened under the aegis of the E.U. but there we are.
Anyway, this was to be a post about Obama’s Inaugural Address of ten long years ago. In the main, it is a speech of denial, being almost exclusively composed of many references to the better nature of American society, the enlightened ‘scale of its ambitions,’ a society composed of ‘men and women [who] struggled and worked until their hands were raw so that we (sic) might live a better life. They saw America as bigger [greater?] than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” His speech continues in this vein, overflowing with the intoxication of the moment as he stood on the steps of the Capitol. (It reminded me of the old Disraeli (?) jibe to another MP ‘the honourable member is intoxicated . . (Order! Order!) . . with the exuberance of his own verbosity.’
Naturally I acknowledge that Obama’s primary purpose was to seek to instil a sense of hope and purpose in the U.S. after the failures of the Bush years and the recession. His appeal to Americans’ better nature may have had more long lasting impact if he had been less gushing about the supposed virtues of American society and more forthright about the greed, manipulation, crony capitalism, the boondoggling Congress, political corruption and gerrymandering that bedevils that ‘democracy.’ I seem to remember that FDR had no such reservations when he often challenged the status quo, for example: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence is fascism, ownership of a government by an individual, by a group.” Prescient in the 1930s and no less prescient of what Trump is about today. So how did Obama’s soaring ambitions fail so calamitously?
Obama was everything his words weren’t—a trimmer, a triangulator, an appeaser. Sometimes I wonder if he had had a bit of the Trump about him (in a political sense) he may have headed off Trump. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the next Democrat presidential nominee. They have to stop equivocating—but with Joe Biden still leading their field of candidates it doesn’t look they’re in any mood to change. Perhaps (this is a joke) they have studied what has befallen Jeremy Corbyn.
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