by J J Cohen
My son Alex and I went to the Inauguration on Tuesday. You can see some pictures I took here.
We froze various parts of our anatomy off, but loss of body seemed a small price for joining ourselves to a crowd so ebullient. For reasons of historical resonance (and because it provided a break against the frigid wind), we sat for much of the morning at the Lincoln Memorial. As the time for the oath of office neared, we wandered to a spot near the World War II Memorial, a good place to view the Jumbotrons. The crowd (I must admit) booed Bush, Cheney and Warren. The shocked silence that followed Justice Roberts' flubbing of the oath [note to John Roberts: write words on arm next time] was followed by a cheer so loud it still bangs against my eardrums.
Many commentators have concluded that Obama's inauguration address was not up to snuff, especially when compared to the soaring diction of his speech at the Sunday concert or his various rhetorical achievements during and even before the campaign -- or when compared to Lincoln. Obama has been faulted for crafting words that were too much of the moment rather than a speech that will live in history. He kept the now so foregrounded that the distant future (this line of reasoning runs) lost the gift he should have bequeathed.
It seems to me that for any words uttered by any speaker to escape their moment and live powerfully afterwards, they must be capable of time travel. These words must immediately transport their listener back into the moment of their utterance (a time of crisis, most likely, a time when the future is difficult to discern no matter how passionate the hope for a better time to come). They must also make that future possible, open that time to come to possibility, by acknowledging forcefully the power, the grip of the past. Sometimes they do this by rebuking that history, by clearing space for something better to arrive. Sometimes they do this by forcefully choosing our better history, leaving behind the the recriminations and worn out dogmas that have come to seem the truth.
You'll notice already some of Obama in those lines. Here are some more: We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter.
Those are good words. Those are strong words. They are of the moment, but they have a power that (I believe) will enable them to live long beyond the passing of our times. That's true timelessness: not a removal from history, but a temporality in which past, present, and possible futures coinhabit.
But, that's just my own of the moment opinion.