Obama Inaugural Address Echoes Bush, Clinton, Carter, JFK, FDR, Lincoln

Ask not...where you heard that before.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I was struck a couple of times, listening to and reading Barack Obama's inaugural speech, that he nicely echoed some of his predecessors in office. A more thorough examination reveals the speech practically reverberates with them.

Before I start noting them, I should add: While critics attacked the president during the campaign as having plagiarized his friend Deval Patrick, riffing on the themes and phrases of one's predecessors is neither odd nor dishonorable. Nor is it even necessarily intentional. In some cases, the themes or phrases in question are timeless and, in some cases, the echoes are unwitting.

Nonetheless, looking for rhetorical precedents can be fun.

"So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."
As William Safire points out, "this generation of Americans" calls to mind John F. Kennedy (" the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans") and FDR ("This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny"). Obama, Safire added, "showed no sign of its resonance."

"These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land..."
In what is certainly an unintentional echo, Obama's warning about the crisis sapping confidence recalls Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter warning of a "threat [that] is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will." While Carter did not use the word "malaise" in his address, it will forevermore be known as the "malaise speech."

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."
This is a reference to 1 Corinthians (13:11) ("When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things"). Ronald Reagan would occasionally reference this line for laughs when discussing his decision to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Of greater import, Obama used this passage in a May 2007 commencement address in New Hampshire, where it was a central theme:

And yet, maturity does not come from any one occasion—it emerges as a quality of character. Because the fact is, I know a whole lot of 30 and 40 and 50-year-olds who have not yet put away childish things—who continually struggle to rise above the selfish or the petty or the small.

We see this reflected in our country today.

We see it in a politics that's become more concerned about who's up and who's down than who's working to solve the real challenges facing our generation; a politics where debates over war and peace are reduced to 60-second soundbites and 30-second attack ads...

"...and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
The "full measure" phrase recalls Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history."
The phrase "better history" calls to mind the "better angels" peroration of Lincoln's first inaugural:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Interesting historical side note: Lincoln's incoming secretary of state, William Seward, had suggested a peroration that included the hope that mystic chords "will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation." Lincoln polished the thought into the transcendent passage we remember.

"For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. "
The use of "lash" evokes Lincoln's second inaugural, in which he contemplated "blood drawn with the lash" being paid by that "drawn with the sword."

"For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh."
In his first inaugural, Ronald Reagan talked about soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery:

Their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.

" We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.  Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. "
This reminds Chicago Tribune reporters Julia Keller, Patrick T. Reardon, and Steve Johnson of FDR's first inaugural: "Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance.... Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."

" Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. "
The idea of remaking or rejuvenating America—especially at a time when the White House is switching parties—is a classic of the genre. ( Bill Clinton, 1993: "To renew America, we must be bold.")

" The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. "
Franklin Roosevelt in 1993: "This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work." Also, Jimmy Carter made building a " new foundation" the theme of his 1979 inaugural address.

". . . a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. "
JFK in 1961: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

" Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.  Those ideals still light the world... "
JFK in 1961: "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

" They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. "
As my brother Stephen observes over at the Huffington Post, this echoes Harry S. Truman speaking at the 1945 conference in San Francisco that had just drafted the United Nations charter. ("We all have to recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.")

" To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. "
This was the first iteration in a litany of "To the...," including messages to adversarial leaders around the globe, the people of poor nations, etc. JFK had a similar listing in his inaugural ("To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share..."). George W. Bush also spoke to specific global constituencies in his second inaugural, but eschewed the "To the..." formulation. ("Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.")

".. . we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. "
George H. W. Bush used hand/fist imagery in his inaugural address both addressing the rest of the world ("The offered hand is a reluctant fist; once made strong and can be used with great effect") and to congressional leaders ("This is the age of the offered hand").

" We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty but because they embody the spirit of service. "
Speaking in 1965 of the great phrases and ideals that have defined our nation ("All men are created equal"—"government by consent of the governed"—"give me liberty or give me death"), Lyndon Johnson noted that (emphasis added)"those are not just empty theories. In their name, Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight, around the world, they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives." LBJ's speech, delivered to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, is better remembered for his pronouncement that "we shall overcome."

" 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 defin ing of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. "
The overall theme of a returning to greatness by re-embracing basic values is also an inaugural classic, but especially calls to mind JFK, not only for "ask not what your country can do for you," but also the idea of welcoming the responsibility of "the burden of a long twilight struggle."

On a lighter note, there's this: