Monday, March 9, 2009

Inaugural Addresses

The age of oratory seems to be over -- at least in India where I think it died with Jawaharlal Nehru. Most interventions in Parliament create more heat and noise than light, and even the House of Commons no longer resonates with the words of the great masters of the English Language.

However there is still one last bastion, where soaring oratory is treasured. It happens every four years at the inaugural address of the new President of the United States. All President-elects spend days, sometimes weeks polishing their inaugural address with an eye to posterity and the history books. That does not mean they all succeed. Jimmy Carter's address was eminently meaningless, that of George W. Bush completely forgettable. By all accounts, nobody has surpassed Abraham Lincoln in oratory, though FDR and JFK came close. Barack Obama, while good, came nowhere near these three. Words from Lincoln's two inaugural speeches “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away” and ending with “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” or those of Kennedy -- “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.” have become part of the common lexicon of the English language. This and much else can be found in Jill Lepore's humorous and highly readable article in the New Yorker. Apart from an overview of various inaugural speeches, the article also produces many fascinating facts.

For example the oath that the Constitution prescribes for the President (which famously both Obama and Roberts fluffed this time) says: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And importantly, it does not require a Bible. A special congressional committee at Washington's inaugural decided that it might be fitting for Washington to rest his hand on a Bible. After the oath, Washington then kissed his borrowed Bible and uttered four words more: “So help me, God.” Ever since, most Presidents have done the same, but some have dispensed with the kiss, a few have skipped those four words, and, in 1853, Franklin Pierce even refused the Bible. Unfortunately in recent times, no President has chosen to take the risk of dispensing with the Bible or those last four words.


AmOK said...

OLO, America makes progress, sometimes slowly. Didst thou -- I mean did you ever imagine that an African-American could be President? What about a woman? What about an African-American woman? Yes, what about an African-American woman who is NOT a Christian? Can you guess the next term in this series :). Wait another fifty years, and you will see. So help me God.

Rahul Basu said...

Next term: An African American Jewish woman followed by an African American Muslim woman! So help me Allah!