Did it soar? Did the pilot lift America and the rest of the watching world into a better place by the sheer thrust of his rhetorical engines? No, not exactly. Maybe there was ice on the wings of Obama’s prose, and not just deposited by the knife-slicing January cold. The chill was more a matter of mood: his and the country’s at a moment of unparalleled crisis. So there was no sugar-coating; not much in the way of head-patting and lullabies. What there was instead was great seriousness of tone and substance; the integrity that comes from telling it like it is; a feeling that the time was too tough for cheap lyrics. Even the delivery was urgent, decidedly unplayful. The words came at a fast clip, threatening to break into a run, rather than the easy grace; they were timed with his cool body language that I saw a year ago in Iowa and then again in San Antonio just before Super Tuesday, Obama having fun with his own powers of magnetism. This was not, he had decided, an occasion for verbal confectionery. There may have been a sprinkling of the Usual Suspects among the coats up on the glacial crag of the Capitol steps—John Cusack, Sean Combs aka Puff Daddy—but this particular morning was never going to be about entertainment. “It is time” Barack said, quoting scripture in apostolic mode, to “put away childish things”
The person they had just heard was not, after all, a wordsmith. He is, they know, at long last and in our dire straits, a leader.
There was not even much in the way of marveling congratulation that the centuries of racial hate and oppression, the deep taint on America’s founding, had finally been wiped away. With one neat, clean little sentence, the 44th President finally allowed the third president, the slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, who had asserted his country’s rebellion to be fired by the proposition that all men were created equal, to stop writhing in his Monticello tomb. Now Obama said, the piety had at last been made true. Though Obama referred (without speaking specifically of Martin Luther King) to the dream that had been set before America decades ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial now having been made reality, it was left to the veteran civil rights campaigner of that older generation, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, to pluck the strings of the heart with his fabulously politically incorrect couplets “if you’re black, don’t give it back..if you’re yeller, just be meller…” For Obama, it had been done. That was wonder enough. Fine, now can we forget about it and get on with Matters At Hand, for if we simply sit around and feel good, the country and the world will simply go to hell. It was though he was talking to us, not from the podium at all, but somehow as though already hard at work, looking up from his desk behind a sheaf of papers and a stack of trouble, interrupting the immense task to give America its marching orders; to say “we’re in this together. Don’t expect miracles. Life has changed. Get used to it. The world has changed. We can cope with it.” His exact words were simultaneously daunting and thrilling with the sheer weight of their significance: “the time has come to remake America.”
Nothing could be more distant from the empty sunshine of Reagan’s “morning in America” platitude that inaugurated the chuckle-headed race for loot that has now tumbled over a cliff. Obama went out of his way to pour a little benediction on the free market, never doubting that it was still a great force for Adam Smith’s notion of happiness. But it was tempered with reminders of the need for mutuality, for interdependence. And spiced with pure Franklin when he cleared away the tedious, relentless debate about the size of government by insisting that the true issue is not whether government is too big or too small but whether it works. Memories of post-Katrina revulsion at incompetence were cued up. But Obama knows that Americans across the spectrum of cultures and ideologies cherish common decency and things that do indeed work. And he evidently means to make both happen. Programs that do work would be sustained; those that don’t would be junked. Who could argue with that? So cockle-warming was scant. Some of the most powerful and moving passages of word-painting were scenes of American desolation “houses shuttered,” people out of work, south Chicago on his mind. But if sometimes he had trouble lifting his audience up, he never brought them down; every bleak reality followed by an equally heartening truth. Yes, things have changed, he allowed, but some things, the important things have not. The economy has somehow unraveled, but America is still the same nation of people who work hard, invent ingeniously, produce the services the nation and world needs. That is not the nation that has come undone and it will be that true America that in adversity summons the strength and resolve to remake itself. And you had to believe him.
Was it what the ocean of people had surged to this hill by the Potomac to hear, this exercise in tough love? No great roars of joy or exultation sounded off up and down the Mall. The cello of Yo-Yo Ma, playing John Williams’s variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” triggered a deeper throb of the heart. But people I spoke to in the subway afterwards—running into unknown doorways to get some sensation back in their extremities—all loved it, the word they used again and again. What they felt awed by, I think, was the uncanny sense that this 47-year-old had somehow internalized all of American experience, going right back to the founding fathers to the point that he had become inseparable from its history. The most startling phrase in the whole speech was when Obama spoke of tasting “the bitter swill” of slavery, civil war, and segregation as though it rose from his gut now and again in filthy reflux. But what the crowd also loved was his capacity on this wintriest of days to invoke Valley Forge and the Crossing of Delaware; to quote that whitest of fathers, the one with the guilty conscience who freed his slaves on his death and who had spoken of the spirit of virtue and honor that would pull the cause through its tribulation. When Obama conjured up Washington in Washington, it was not some token history lecture he was giving. It was though the tough, taciturn, clipped General had spoken to him and told him to ease off on the rhetorical honey and give his people instead the nourishment of patriotic fortitude, to draw deep and come forth strong. That he did, and that’s why, even if the connoisseurs of verbal fancy demur, the people on the subway were right to feel both comforted and inspired. The person they had just heard was not, after all, a wordsmith. He is, they know, at long last and in our dire straits, a leader.
Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996. Parts III and IV of his new series, The American Future: A History, air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on BBC America.