Monday, January 19, 2009

Stone made flesh at the Lincoln Memorial

Speaking at yesterday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Obama found a rather lovely way to physically connect the crowd, and more generally Americans living at this moment, with the historical narative he always invokes in his speeches.

Throughout his campaign and the transition, Obama has framed the change he's calling for as a continuation of American traditions of overcoming injustice in an ongoing struggle to form a more perfect union. Standing in front of tens of thousands of radiant supporters lining the reflecting pool,, he pivoted from the stories encased in the surrounding stone monuments to the living history embodied in the crowd:

What gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across, this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith — a faith that anything is possible in America. Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea. On the ground below is a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression — men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny’s grasp. Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.

And yet, as I stand here today, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you — Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there....

You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office — the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes; who ask only for what was promised us as Americans — that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did.

It is this thread that binds us together in common effort; that runs through every memorial on this mall; that connects us to all those who struggled and sacrificed and stood here before.

Perhaps this trope will find its way into Obama's Inaugural Speech, which will overlook the same 'monumental' landscape from the other end. A few days ago, Obama defined his inaugural challenge like this:
I think that the main task for me in an inauguration speech, and I think this is true for my presidency generally, is to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in...
For Obama, capturing the moment has always meant framing it within his idealized version of U.S. history. There was a magic in that stone-made-flesh and flesh-making-history moment yesterday. I suspect he'll conjure it again tomorrow.

In a related vein: James Fallows has complained recently about Obama submitting to the wearisome political imperative of ending every speech with the formulaic "God bless America" - the verbal equivalent of the flagpin. In yesterday's speech Obama varied the formula -- and again, in a sense, made stone flesh. Here was the signoff:
Thank you, America. God bless you.
"America" was the crowd, and the larger electronic crowd beyond. He was not blessing an abstraction, but rather the faces in front of him. Let's see if that makes it in tomorrow, too.

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