by Joshua H. Liberatore
As all the world witnessed this Tuesday, there is a new POTUS in the House, with a new style, a fresh perspective, and novel rhetorical flourishes to attend to. We at the Office of the Federal Register, like many here and overseas, are watching and listening with wonder and expectation, striving to stay ahead of the learning curve to embrace this remarkable transition. After eight years of misunderestimating our Commander in Chief, we are forgiven perhaps, if either our standards for both leadership and oratory are so diminished that we are too easily impressed or our appetite for Change is so piqued that we fail to recognize continuity. After two years of campaign rhetoric, let’s examine a few choice tidbits from this week’s Inaugural Address to get ourselves on a solid, rational footing as the new administration begins to take shape in the real world.One aspect of POTUS’s speech that simply can’t go unnoticed was the curious blend of sober circumspection and gushing optimism:
And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more. (January 20, 2009)
Although the hopeful timbre of this gesture is admirable and encouraging, honest Americans of all stripes know it is simply not true; those to whom it was directed certainly wish it to be so, but they know better as well. Nagging facts on the ground speak otherwise. Will assurances such as these retain their persuasive power for the Palestinian child who observes her school or the United Nations food warehouse in Gaza leveled by weapons manufactured or paid for by the U.S.? Will the benevolent message reach the African corn farmer who finds himself perennially outcompeted in local markets by government-subsidized supercrops from Iowa and Nebraska? To paraphrase Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, superpowers do not have allies or friends, only clients. Still, in defense of the noble idealism here, POTUS is to be commended for introducing an affable tone, however naïve, to our foreign policy.
True to the history of his office, POTUS also engaged in a portion of necessary self-contradiction. Though his posture remained benign and his message generally congenial, POTUS did not refrain from a little tough talk, which might just have brought a melancholy grin of approval from his predecessor, safely aboard a military plane en route to Texas:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
In fact, it’s conceivable that precisely in order to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America” in addressing “the specter” of climate change, pursuing unwinnable wars on terror, reforming our models of infrastructure, health care, and education, and overhauling the very structure of our economic system – ambitious agenda by all objective criteria – we might have to do just that: apologize for our way of life and begin anew.
Thankfully, we still have God on our side, as POTUS did not hesitate to remind us, invoking His name no fewer than five times in his well-paced, 19-minute, allusion-rich address.
And with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
And like former occupants of the Oval Office, POTUS made sure to quote at least one Founding Father and one well-know passage from Scripture, sometimes in the same phrase:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In all this, however, POTUS proved his humanity, his mortality, which was often in doubt judging from the eerie chanting of his last name that frequently emanated from the teeming crowds of applauders gazing at the JumboTron screens with an abandon and wonderment that bordered on idolatry. Yes, POTUS’s subtle if down-to-earth familiarity was a most encouraging display, because although America’s problems are indeed gigantic in theory, they become, perforce, human-scale in practice and require human-scale sacrifices, patience, and resolve. POTUS did well to reiterate the point:
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.
Thanks to an awkward misprompting from Chief Justice John Roberts – appointed to the Supreme Court, you’ll recall, on the strength of his strict constructionist judicial philosophy – POTUS stumbled briefly during the oath of office, consummating what English teachers around the world recognize as the curious portability of adverbs, one of the great charms of our complex grammar. An imperfection so technical, so minute (but nevertheless necessitating a private redo a day later), is not only forgivable, it brings immense comfort to those of us wary of the potential for mindless loyalty evident in Tuesday morn’s adulating masses.