Inhabiting the words

From ClipboardDid you see Obama’s inauguration speech ? What did you think ?

At first sight it was  tall man in a winter coat, reading to quarter of a million people from a teleprompt. But it was a lot more than that.

Think of the challenge. How do you connect to a huge crowd- with a nation behind them, watching on tv ? He did it in a number of ways. First the speech itself.

It was pared down, precise without being simplistic. He used “we” a lot. This meant every American alive now, every one who lived in the past and will live in the future. He was setting out the context.

He put forward a programme that no-one in their right mind could argue with-equality of gender and sexual preference, environmental awareness, health care , talking to your enemies before you start bombing them- all presented in a concise, unambiguous way. And he asked for support from the whole country; he was tapping into the essential compassion and common sense which is still  part of American society.

He was  realistic. This won’t happen today. Some of it won’t happen at all. But we have to try. Small victories are still victories, and we must be grateful for them.

Then came the steady drumbeat of “ We, the people”- he meant the American nation now- the huge and disparate community which has such power in the world- but he was also reaching back to the American Constitution and that blaze of hope and optimism that flared up at the end of the eighteenth century.

It was a beautifully written speech- I’m sure he didn’t write it- but I’m also sure that he had a  big  hand in its creation.

The end was about oaths we take. Promises we make to each other.A  huge nation bound together by promises……

You could say “Sure- sounded great- so it should. He must have rehearsed it dozens of times” And I’m sure that’s true- but that didn’t make it any less sincere. He inhabited every sentence, every phrase.

The voice helped him- strong, calm- controlled. You always have the feeling that he’s holding something back.It’s taking an effort- but he’s not going to bleed all over the carpet. I like this because it’s a very British thing. Obama is master of the American Stiff Upper Lip.

And the silences. To start with, it’s a matter of politeness. Once you’ve hit a key line, then stop, and let the audience take it in. And that’s what he did. After each repetition of “We, the people” the silence got longer ,and longer. You could see the message soaking in.Us. We. The people…..

I’m a Brit, and it made me weep. It touched me in the same way that Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” speech in “Henry V.”

It was real. It was human.

It was poetry.


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