Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present

During the 1952 campaign for president, a newspaper photographer caught Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson with his legs crossed, displaying a well-worn shoe with a hole in the sole. The campaign quickly embraced the image as an symbol of thrift and industry, an antidote to his (well deserved) reputation as somewhat aristocratic and intellectual. “Better a hole in the shoe than a hole in the head,” he observed. A small silver lapel pin of a shoe with a hole became a symbol of his campaigns.

I thought of this last year, when a Time Magazine photo caught Barrack Obama in a similar pose, this time with both shoes worn through. As it happens, my mom was one of the Adlai fans who proudly wore that silver shoe pin, and she passed it along to me. And so on Tuesday night, at a dinner commemorating the election of our 44th president, I pinned that on my black jacket in fond memory.

The parallels extend beyond worn footwear. Stevenson, like Obama, was an intellectual from Illinois, sometimes perceived as too smart and cool for his own political good. When an enthusiastic supporter cried out at a rally that “Every thinking American will vote for you, Adlai,” he was quick to rejoin: “That’s not sufficient. I will need a majority.”

Of course, Obama won, and Tuesday I thought perhaps Adlai was looking on with approval while the brainy, lanky young man from his home state delivered the most coherent, well integrated inaugural address in memory. Rather than reaching for a single “Ask not what your country can do for you” moment, his remarks instead laid down a careful foundation from which to launch the revolution he intends to lead. While it was not verbal pyrotechnics, it was rhetoric of the highest order: comprehensible, logical, persuasive. And, finally, compelling.

I heard at least these five stirring game-changing proclamations:

  1. We will no longer allow the cover of security to excuse the erosion of our liberties;
  2. We will defend ourselves vigorously, but stand ready to extend a hand to any willing to “unclinch his fist;”
  3. We will seek safety and security in partnerships and alliances, employing diplomacy as well as military arms in our defense;
  4. We reject false limits on ambition for our future, reminding those who proclaim them that their memories are short and not true to American history;
  5. And finally, we reject the cries of cynics who did not feel the ground shifting beneath them, determined to demonstrate that the stale politics of the past no longer control us.
Graybeards in Washington will stroke their chins and grumble about naivety while millions of feet on streets across the country are busy moving on. Like the despots Obama cautioned in this speech, they are caught on the wrong side of history this time.

At the inaugural concert on the Mall, actor Tom Hanks narrated a piece most Americans have probably never heard, but which has brought tears to my eyes more than once: Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Comprised mainly of Abraham Lincoln’s own words – how better? – it has been famously narrated before by celebrities like James Earl Jones and Charlton Heston, but the version I listen to has a more distinguished voice by far: that of Adlai Stevenson.

And while the crises we face on so many fronts today still pales in comparison to the Civil War of Lincoln’s era, many of his words are hauntingly prophetic. They can move us today as they did his fellow citizens then. None resonate more with me than these:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation ... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
UPDATE: Turns out there's a fancy academic term for Obama's style of non-soundbite speech making: "non-reductive rhetoric." Who knew?


Charlotte-Anne said...

Howard -
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and spiritual word-smithery.
My mother also is an "Adlai Stevenson Democrat" who passed along to me her affection for honest intellectual idealism.
I, too, was profoundly touched by Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” and "Fanfare for the Common Man" at the inaugural.
One more touchpoint: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen in front of the Lincoln Monument, exuberantly singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."
I'm unapologetically grateful that I lived to see this day.

Gene Koo said...

Don't know if "non-reductive rhetoric" is a real term or not, nevermind fancy, but I made it up this morning while mulling over that speech.

Howard said...

Well, it's a good one, Gene. Was great to see your perspective – perhaps especially since it was so closely allied with my own :)

Gary O'Brien said...

In reading Gene's post, I thought about how Obama's approach will force changes in "top-down" media - not only in how we cover the presidency, but news in general.

"Never since the rise of mass media has a campaign succeeded on assuming not only the basic intelligence of voters, but also their willingness to hear out a complex argument. The technology to bypass top-down media is one cornerstone of Obama’s success as a communicator."

Perhaps this is a glimmer of hope for newspapers. Thanks for the insight, Gene.