One of the things that most interested me about Barack Obama’s inaugural address was its peroration.
During the transition, the Obama team, its supporters, and its detractors, made a series of comparisons between our then-President Elect and past U.S. presidents. Probably the most discussed such comparison was with Abraham Lincoln, a parallel proposed by Obama, and then much-debated by press and public. “Obama’s Lincoln” made the cover of Newsweek. Even some historians got into the act.
But Lincoln was not the only past president who came up in discussions of Obama. Also prominently mentioned were FDR (largely because of his having come to office in the midst of the Great Depression) and JFK (glamor and youth, among other things).
Although Obama’s inaugural address certainly sounded some Rooseveltian and Kennedyesque notes–about seeing the country through a crisis and the need for public service respectively–neither FDR nor JFK nor Lincoln was directly invoked.
Indeed, the only past president who appeared in Obama’s speech was, somewhat surprisingly, George Washington. Here’s how the inaugural address concluded:
In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.
Although Washington is not mentioned by name, the epithet “the father of our nation” would be clear, I think, to any American listener. But Washington is an unusual political figure to invoke. More than FDR and JFK, even more than Lincoln, Washington is universally admired today. But the public’s admiration for Washington is, in a way, almost entirely devoid of real political content (hence, I think, its universality). Washington is known for being a great general and the first president, as well as for mythical feats like throwing a dollar across the Potomac. It’s somehow telling that the #1 hit on YouTube for “George Washington” is this hilarious (but definitely NSFW) video, which plays off the vague–and vaguely superheroic–qualities of Washington’s image in America today. At any rate, Washington is, on the face of it, a rather unlikely point of comparison: simultaneously uniquely accomplished (there can be only one “father of our nation,” after all) and politically strangely empty.
But in addition to directly invoking Washington, the conclusion of Obama’s speech directly quotes another great American revolutionary without mentioning his name. Although Obama’s speech almost makes it sound as if Washington composed the words he asked to be read to his troops, Washington’s request was, in fact, that a pamphlet by Tom Paine be read. And the words Obama quotes are from that pamphlet, the first in the series of sixteen that eventually became known collectively as The Crisis.
Even without his name being mentioned, Paine’s appearance in an inaugural address is yet more striking than Washington’s. If Washington is universally known and loved, while having an image oddly devoid of current political content, Paine is almost precisely the opposite. Paine is less well known today than many of his fellow founding fathers, but his reputation among those who know him is very specific. Paine is known as a great radical and pamphleteer. Little wonder that one of the most significant early progressive online journals named itself TomPaine.com. Even during his own lifetime, Tom Paine went from being a celebrated hero to a figure of scandal. In addition to The Crisis, Paine wrote Common Sense (1776), arguably the single most important pamphlet to make the case for American independence from Britain. But he later took part in the French Revolution and penned The Age of Reason (1793-94), which infamously argued for deism and against Christianity and destroyed his reputation in the U.S. Even a century later, Teddy Roosevelt could dismiss him as a “filthy little atheist.”
Yet Obama’s invocation of Paine has gone largely unremarked upon in the American media. The Times of London devoted an article to Paine following Obama’s speech, but to the best of my knowledge, no U.S. publication has done so.
Obama’s quoting Paine in the guise of Washington may soon become part of the right-wing conspiracy theory that our new president is a secret radical whose books were ghost written by former Weatherman Bill Ayers. Anyone tempted to conclude that Obama’s quoting Paine is somehow a sign of secret leftism would do well to remember the identity of the last president who liked to quote the author of Common Sense: Ronald Reagan.