Wednesday, January 11, 2017
As I write this I have not yet seen an estimate of the size of the television and radio audiences for President Obama’s Farewell Address, delivered last night in Chicago. I hope that it was very large. Apparently eighty million people viewed at least part of the first of the campaign “debates” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so that I suppose one might legitimately hope for something like a tenth of that. Though it may not be saying much it is still worth saying that there was a great deal more of substance in the President’s speech. One had the general impression of vast throngs from the twenty thousand enthusiasts in the live audience at the McCormick Place Convention Center, many of them young people who had waited in long lines in the freezing pre-dawn.
The event, beautifully staged as so many major political events must be these days, suffered from the cultural indeterminacy typical of a hybridity that conjoins the rock concert with the Roman forum. The President’s speech was prefaced by a pop rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Now the “Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. That means, or should mean, that it is communal and corporate, not individual and expressive. The first-person pronouns of its lyrics are first-person plural. It is not an operatic aria. It would be a solecism to have the massed voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir go off on Che gelida manina from La Bohème. No less of a solecism is it to invite pop stars to indulge in tremolo riffs on “home of the braaaaaaaave.” Of course that it merely my opinion, and I have no illusion that it will ever cut much ice with the impressarios of the National Football League who, along with the organizers of various self-promotion events in Hollywood, seem to have determined the forms of national secular liturgies.
Such grumpy old fudy-dudyism is, however, about the worst thing I have to say about the speech. Its genre demanded certain things. The speaker had to present a rosy view of the accomplishments of his two Administrations. He had to express his gratitude to those who had elected and aided him while in office. And he had to claim some unique significance for actions carried out under the specific circumstances of recent history. But one can do those things more or less well, and I thought that all in all he did them very well, and in a fashion that exhibited articulateness, intelligence, forcefulness, amiability, civility, and that old-fashioned decency that is rapidly absenting itself from our brutal politics.
President Obama’s farewell address had a definite theme: democracy, more particularly American democracy. This is not an original theme—far from it. It could be described indeed as the classic theme of American presidential oratory. The theme is usually approached in terms of the novelty, the delicacy, the peculiarity, or the vulnerabily of an institution constantly to be tested. Such suggestion is powerfully present in Washington’s own Farewell Address. According to Lincoln at Gettysburg the enormous upheaval of the Civil War was a test of whether so unlikely a proposition as American democracy “could long endure”. Franklin Roosevelt returned to it time and again. President Obama was by no means blind to serious challenges to our American democratic consensus, but he was finally decisively optimistic. His optimism is founded his assessment of the finest cohorts of American youth. Having spent my own life working among such young people, I am happy to associate myself with his view.
There is a difference between a reflective optimist and a Pollyanna. Our outgoing President inspired me to consult the first presidential farewell address—Washington’s, in 1796, to which I have already alluded. There I find a good deal that is relevant to our own age of political bubbles, media wars, coastal elites, flyover country, and thirty-second attack ads. “In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union,” said President Washington, “it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”