Sunday, January 20, 2013

A lawyerly second inaugural, or a piece of the president's heart? Or both?

I am generally chary of literary analysis that finds meaning in sound -- variations of rhythm and meter, assonance and alliteration, etc. But purely by accident, while reading Ronald C. White's little ode to Lincoln's Second Inaugural in today's Times (this by a man who I see in the bio line has written a whole book about the speech), I was struck by the beauty and, as it were, aural authority of the speech's final phrasing as White quoted it:
By contrast, Lincoln disappeared in his second inaugural. The speech contains the word “I” only once. Lincoln was pointing beyond himself to the future of the American democratic experiment, “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves; and with all nations.”

Following the qualified, conditional assertion that the nation has endured God's wrath, and the injunction to "bind up the nation's wounds," this final phrasing does, it seems to me, deliver a kind of aural balm.  It chimes internally in multiple ways: in the alliteration of "achieve and cherish," the assonance of "achieve" and "peace," the double nail-down of just and lasting, lightly punctuating the soft susseration of "cherish...peace...ourselves, nations."

As White suggests, Lincoln's near-total abnegation of the pronoun "I" helps him posi divine justice and call for mercy. The final sentence's call to charity softens, or rather bids to redeem, the earlier (provisional) Old Testament judgment -- "if God wills that [this scourge of war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword. " Confidence in the moral judgment delivered is qualified both by the admission that both sides pray to the same God (and so presumably strive for "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right") -- and, again, by the call for "charity for all."

It's interesting that White exhorts Obama to deliver "not a lawyerly, rational address on the issues facing our nation but a president ready to share his heart," in that Lincoln's Second Inaugural is, among other things, something of a legal brief. At least it starts that way.  I am instructed here by Adam Gopnik's read on Lincoln's rhetoric:
What strikes a newcomer to Lincoln’s speeches, however, is how rare those famous cadences are; their simple, resonant language—“with malice towards none, with charity for all”; the concluding and opening lines of the Gettysburg Address—is memorable in part because there isn’t much of it. The majority of Lincoln’s public utterances are narrowly, sometimes brilliantly, lawyerly—even, on occasion, crafted to give an appearance of inevitability to oratorical conclusions that are not well supported by the chain of reasoning that precedes them. The undramatic, small-print language in which Lincoln offered the Emancipation Proclamation is the most famous instance of his mastery of anti-heroic rhetoric. (Karl Marx said that it reminded him of “ordinary summonses sent by one lawyer to another.”)
Short as it is, the Second Inaugural contains both poles. In fact, in its 701 words it manages to move from legal boilerplate to implicit indictment to (qualified) Biblical judgment and ultimately to a kind of prophecy. It does indeed start like an "ordinary summons" -- or the opening topic statement in the CEO's letter introducing an annual report, a passive voice statement of what the occasion calls for (and doesn't call for):
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
With no prediction ventured, and no detailed course for the present to be laid out, Lincoln moves without further transition into retrospective. There he delivers a subtly aggressive indictment of the secessionists:
 On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
I love the way Lincoln uses the verb "let" here. It's an inversion of the action as the opposition would present it. The other party would not "let the nation survive?" -- from its point of view, Lincoln & co. would not let a new nation survive, and that new nation's birth did not imply the demise of Lincoln's.  Lincoln's party would not let the (existing) nation perish? -- from the opposite perspective he would not let the new one be born.  Lincoln similarly inverts the verb "accept," as it was by a more normal reckoning the North that launched war rather than "let" the Confederacy be born. A very lawyerly dispute, embodied in Lincoln's maneuvering to induce the South to fire first. The reversibility of the indictment -- "firmly in the right" though Lincoln may profess to deliver it - -is implicitly acknowledged in the next paragraph's famous observation that both sides pray to the same God.

Onward thence to the famous positing of the war as an expression of God's wrath and a working of divine justice, ultimately to be redeemed by a combination of firmness in the right and charity for all, into a "just and lasting peace.

So, I would humbly suggest to Ronald White, Lincoln "shared his heart" through a most lawyerly portal. What does that imply for Obama's speech? I don't know. I do think, as I recently noted, that Obama's understanding of the place of religion in political discourse is in sync with Lincoln's: it's appropriate to express how religion informs your own values and reasoning, but the policies thus arrived at must be justified by appeal to universal reason.  Obama put it this way in The Audacity of Hope:
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason
Obama always hews to this principle.  In his first inaugural, in fact, he invoked Paul's "when I became a man I put away childish things" as a kind of underpinning, I think, of his own often-reiterated vision of the United States as ever striving for a never-complete "more perfect union" as envisioned in the nation's founding documents. Such religiously-tinted vision does not preclude the "rational address of the issues facing our nation" that White warns against. And since we've not just emerged from a traumatizing civil war, I don't see offhand while a reasonable degree of policy detail (and implicit debate) would be inappropriate or preclude giving us a little piece of his heart.

Honestly, after immersing myself in Obama's rhetoric these past five years, I don't see what he can say tomorrow that he has not already said, many times. I would expect him to suggest that the nation has come through a crisis in reasonably good shape, that for all the partisan rancor core issues have been substantively addressed, that, as he has told us umpteen times, it is essential to direct national resources toward investments that will build a sustainable economy with prosperity shared more broadly than it has been these past thirty years -- and that, over the past four years, his administration has turned a small fleet of battleships at least a few degrees in the right direction.

And now I'm off to grab my Kindle and download Ronald White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech: the Second Inaugural. Done!

P.S. In the inaugural, I also expect some version of Obama's "you were the change...only you have the power to move us forward" theme developed in his 2012 convention speech. That was an expression of what Obama has since cast as a change in his understanding of political action: that change comes from outside Washington. I consider this neither blather nor a naive faith in the power of the bully pulpit to move public opinion, but rather a determination to marshal public opinion that is already on his side on core issues, for example universal background checks for gun purchases.


  1. This is really nice.

    I agree with your expectations; I only wish he would exceed them as he’s proven he can, when it matters. I feel it should matter to him now, because this is perhaps his final scheduled speech in which he’ll have the luxury of aiming for the highest and deepest levels of rhetorical persuasion. I’m afraid he won’t see it that way, and will go with a restating of familiar concepts wrapped in some anodyne attempt at elevation. That could well turn out to be fine and pleasing, but not historic. And more important, not particularly useful.

    Apparently that’s par for the 2nd Inaugural course. But, here’s hoping.

  2. We the People, Our journey is not complete. He did what I asked, if not at the heights or with the full coherence I hoped for. I'm warming to it even more as the hours pass.