Our work in the time of ‘gathering clouds and raging storms’ and a ‘new era of responsibility’

“Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We, the People, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”

—President Obama

David Gergen on CNN called it a speech for our times, if not necessarily for the ages (though I disagree with the LA Times that Gergen sounded completely disappointed by this). History will judge what it will.

On a first, quick impression, it may not have been a poetic address — one caller to our local Public Radio station was practically hysterical in comparing it to something from Lincoln; in soaring rhetoric, perhaps not, though it should be noted that Lincoln wasn’t writing for soundbite material either.

Rather, as another caller noted, that Obama’s address didn’t rely on soundbites made it that much more impressive. And the President has reflected Lincoln’s call to unity; as Lincoln sought to re-unite North and South, the new President seeks to unite the divided factions and parties of our land.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

It shouldn’t be surprising that, as the NY Times noted, the President’s speech “signaled a commitment to pragmatism not just as a governing strategy but as a basic value.”

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The President’s call for a “new era of responsibility” should speak to all Americans, even if it is not something that everyone necessarily wants to hear; it’s not just the greedy and corrupt and the incompetent who need to change in this country. It is a call, I suspect, we will be asked again and again to heed. And rightly so.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Some will be disappointed that the day didn’t contain any soaring, snappy clips that can be played in 5-second bites over and over again on TV and in pop culture, à la JFK’s inauguration — again, judging the world by the old, Boomer-ish standards.  — and disappointed in everything from the minor reversing of words in the oath of office administered by the Chief Justice to the lack of memorable “Ask Not” phrasing in the President’s address, as if a speech that contains more than three sentences to comprehend its meaning is too complex for our supposedly simple minds and is somehow a failure (and yet some people who mock poetry, including Elizabeth Alexander’s, yet demand poetry of a speech and not a pragmatic message).

To which I say: so fucking what? Words are important. Ideas are important. Maybe there will be no one-sentence clip from today’s speech that can be used in a Hollywood trailer in 40 years. But words and ideas can be expressed in important sentences and paragraphs that are more complex than that.

In a pragmatic world for a pragmatic leader, that the speech was delivered and customized for our times as a call to action for the challenges we face is more important than delivering a quotable hook.


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