Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Tale Of Three Speeches

The inestimable historian Garry Wills, noting that the loudest cheers during President Obama's Tucson memorial service address were for the news that Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords had opened her eyes, writes that "Perhaps there was the sound, there, of a nation recovering."

A video address made by Sarah Palin some 3,700 miles away earlier in the day reminds us that it won't be that simple by a . . . uh, long shot.

Mind you that while both Obama and Palin have substantial oratorical powers, the two addresses had different aims, and that is jarring in the extreme when you view them back to back, as I did before writing this. This is because while the president sought to rally Americans with talk of reconciliation, the presidential wannabe sought to further inflame them with an airing of her by now familiar grievances, as well as a new one -- the "blood libel" that she was somehow personally responsible for the rampage in Arizona.

Both succeeded.

"I want America to be as good as Christina imagined it," Obama said in referring to the nine-year-old victim of the rampage. It is hard to imagine Palin even thinking, let alone saying such a thing.

When I was in New York City over the year-end holidays I made it a point to visit the Cooper Union, which is the site of what was arguably the greatest speech delivered by our greatest orator president -- Abraham Lincoln -- in February 1860. I had written dozens of posts about Lincoln during 2009, his bicentennial birth year, have written dozens more about Obama, and have mused long and hard about the frequent comparisons between he and Obama.

Those comparisons are, for the most part, inapt because these presidents served in such different times, but I do have to agree with Wills that the Tuscon and Cooper Union speeches, despite being delivered 160 years apart, bear remarkable similarities.

The most notable of these is that both men had to rise above the acrimony that had engulfed the Republic. In Lincoln's case, this was the by then irrevocable march to civil war. In Obama's, it is the superheated and violence-tinged political rhetoric of the era.

"When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed," recalled one man. "He was tall, tall -- oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man."

No matter. The speech -- an eloquent elaboration of Lincoln's views of slavery -- electrified the capacity crowd of 1,500.

Lincoln soon won over the naysayer: "His face lighted up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man."

Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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