By Naomi Klouda
As President Obama celebrated his second inauguration and the dawn of another four-year term, there can be little dispute over his exact words. No president was ever treated to such a broad range of social media that sends his words to the far corners of the world; even the remotest village in Alaska. Those in D.C. attendance could Tweet, photograph, You-tube, Facebook and text from the benches.
Good thing? Probably, for the sake of posterity. Social media is all inclusive. It doesn’t save back information to be shared only among an elite few.
Exhausting? No doubt it is tiresome to hear the same sound bites over and again in the coming days as the speech is taken apart, dissected and pronounced weak in key areas and strong in others.
The words of the first president of the United States, George Washington, aren’t so carefully preserved. His biographer, Washington Irving gives an example of this. Apparently, Washington was somewhat reluctant to fill the highest government offices of the post American Revolution America. One can almost picture the utterance from under his breath, at the end of the oath, when he said “So help me God.”
Not all presidents after Washington finished their oath with this prayer, of sorts, but it fell into common belief that it is part and parcel. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States… So help me God.”
The first newspaper report that described the exact words used in an oath of office is credited as Chester Arthur’s inauguration in 1881. It repeated the “query-response” method where the words, “so help me God” were a personal prayer, not a part of the constitutional oath. The time of adoption of the current procedure, where both the chief justice and the president speak the oath isn’t known.
Today’s audiences enjoy exactitude that crowds the previous 224 years didn’t know. Does it matter? An immediate text of the speech is made available within minutes, it seems, of the president’s inaugural speech. The ability to be on top of tipping ideas and ideals is there for anyone, rich or poor, school child or senior citizen. That’s likely a great thing.
Inauguration speeches tend to shine with immortal words that live on in history. The tougher the times, the more poetic or bombastic the speeches, as in FD Roosevelt’s fireside chats coaxing Americans to have faith or Lincoln’s Gettysburg address during the heart-shattering Civil War.
Such speeches serve the role of stitching a country together again when it’s sagging at the seams, as ours surely is right now. Here are some ringing lines from President Obama’s address:
• Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
• For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
• We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.
• My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction – and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
So help us God.
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