Naturally, any president who delivers an inaugural address seems to take their own stab at one-upping the great lines of marble-men like John F. Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln. Every president who’s sworn the oath wants to deliver that one line that will be remembered in the same breath as “ask not what your country can do for you” or “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Consequently, inaugural addresses tend to be more poetry than prose — broad, rhetorical ideals, which are subsequently subdivided into policy specifics in State of the Union addresses and other speeches. What ends up being delivered on Janurary 20 every four years are lines that sound great when delivered by statesmen to large crowds but which are rarely memorable. It’s difficult to recall any outstanding lines from recent addresses of the top of my head. Certainly they’ve all been well-crafted speeches, but they haven’t really been great speeches. Now, it’s never easy to compete with the words of beloved leaders who were martyred in their prime because every word they’ve uttered has tended to become emblazoned everywhere, from Facebook memes to bronze plaques at the bases of memorial statues.
But I think President Obama came damn close to delivering what can easily be considered an historic speech and even a truly great speech.
Historians will regard today’s inauguration with high praise for several reasons. First, because of the achievements of the man who took the oath and delivered the address: the first African American president; elected twice, with the second time serving as vindication of his abilities as a president and not just the first black president. Second, because of the connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy. Third, because of the first woman invocation speaker who happened to be the wife of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Fourth, because of the first woman to deliver the vice presidential oath, Justice Sotomayor. Fifth, the first Latino to deliver the official inaugural poem.
And sixth, but perhaps most importantly, because of the content of the speech.
Who knows at this point whether historians will pick out a single line and match it up with Kennedy’s words, or Lincoln’s words or any of the others, but there’s no doubt that the material the president decided to include in his address has confirmed its place in history books and the esteemed and rare company of great inaugural addresses.
I’m talking about the first real mention of the climate crisis and the first mention of gay Americans in an inaugural address.
In fact, he didn’t simply mention these things, he established specific goals in these areas for his second term — not with some kind of vaguely coded poetic language, but in no uncertain terms. This president intends to do something about marriage equality in the next four years, and he absolutely intends to mitigate the climate crisis.
On the first point, gay rights, the president not only used the word “gay” for the first time ever in an inaugural address, but he invoked Stonewall, alongside Selma and Seneca Falls. While Selma was a watershed moment for civil rights and Seneca Falls was the early launching point for the feminist movement, Stonewall was a turning point in the gay rights movement during the late 1960s. It began as a targeted police raid of the Stonewall Inn, an underground gay bar in the Village, and, when the police dragged several patrons and staff out of the establishment, a crowd of protesters had assembled and rapidly grew to a couple thousand people to denounce the police harassment. Tensions were high and the protest turned into what can only be considered a riot, with police ended up beating several protesters. The same thing happened the following night, but with more people on hand. All told, Stonewall united the gay community and began the long road to the rights that the LGBT community has achieved over the last several years. But this goal won’t be fully achieved until marriage equality is granted to all, and the president made a clear commitment to that goal yesterday on the steps of the Capitol.
And much to my satisfaction, the president dedicated an entire extended paragraph to the climate crisis and the urgency with which it must be confronted. He made sure to call out the archaic and obstructive science deniers — again, in no uncertain terms and not hidden behind a friendly wall of lofty rhetoric. He all but shamed the conservative deniers for their ignorance and explained the reality of the crisis: we’re in it now. The effects of global warming are upon us and we have to act before things spiral beyond the point of no return. Unless I’m badly mistaken, the president dedicated as many words to the climate crisis as he did to civil rights, economic inequality, the social safety net and foreign policy. It’s difficult to find words big enough to describe how important this paragraph was. We’re on the verge of slowly annihilating ourselves and, for the first time ever, the President of the United States talked about it with more than just an obligatory nod. Actually, the only president in our lifetimes to even mention the word “environment” was President Clinton who said the phrase “cleaner environment” in his 1997 inaugural and “world environment” in his 1993 inaugural. No one else has bothered. Ever.
Additionally, the president smartly added the economic component of the crisis when he discussed the notion of becoming leaders in clean energy technology. And, to perhaps appeal to conservative Christians, he added the line, “That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.” (Though I’d like to note that the planet will eventually be just fine. It’ll recover from all of this — that is, after all of the people are wiped out because of our own foolishness.)
While the speech was beautifully written and pulse-poundingly delivered, the president didn’t need to compete with the great addresses by struggling to invent a finely crafted turn-of-idealistic-phrase that’d fit nicely onto a memorial sometime in the future. Instead, President Obama’s second inaugural address will be remembered as a great and important speech because of his content choices and, specifically, the profound historic firstness of those choices.