Walking the Talk: A Speech for All Seasons

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February 4, 2013 in Politics & Government

(Lawrence Jackson/White House)

When the President finished his inaugural speech the other week, I said to my wife Susan, “That was a great piece of rhetoric.” By that I did not mean a lot of flowery words strung together or a piece of political discourse from a particular party’s perspective. I meant it as high praise of a public address that transcends the immediate moment and inspires us as a people to live up to our nation’s principles. This one, unlike four years ago, felt like the caliber of speeches I had studied in college in a course on Rhetoric and Public Address.

At least that is what I thought I’d heard. The President talked about the unresolved problems that face us as a nation: immigration, gun reform, deficit control, climate change, economic inequality. He placed those within the context of this nation’s founding principles: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Then the President reminded us how we Americans have always acted to resolve the issues that face us: from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall – three locations that struck movements to expand democracy and make the pursuit of happiness more possible for more people. And he did it inside of 10 minutes.

But when I opened the newspapers the next day, I was shocked to discover I had heard a “liberal” speech. I discovered that I was hearing the President’s agenda for the term ahead, while I thought I had heard him list the problems that stand before us as a nation and which we must address to move forward as a society. Yes, I did hear him defend Social Security and Medicare, but as a platform from which people take risks, which is what I think entrepreneurism is about, whether someone is starting a new business or a new social service project. But I did not hear the partisan panting I recall from Bush in 2004 or Clinton, for that matter, in 1996.

Had this been a “liberal” speech it would have mentioned the problem of low-wage jobs, perhaps affirm the role of organized labor in pressing for middle-income pay checks, maybe throw in something about raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, perhaps a word about the fraying safety net. But the President didn’t include any mention of those issues except a brief reference to the waning middle class. Since the speech was labeled a “liberal speech,” I thought I must be so left of center that I didn’t even recognize the speech for what it was.

Then I got an email from a friend active in the arena of public policy in Los Angeles who defines himself as a “radical moderate.” He was on a plane back from the inauguration and a couple of side meetings while in Washington. He assured me that from what he was hearing “change” was going to come. He didn’t say what kind of change or in which areas, but it was on its way.

In the weeks that have followed, more thoughtful commentary has shifted toward this direction. The Republicans split over the fiscal cliff crisis, and then they backed away from a debt ceiling fight. Republicans in the House seem divided over which strategy they should take in the immediate near term – hard line hold ‘em or issue-by-issue pragmatism.

Perhaps the pundits and the papers couldn’t see outside their own lenses of either/or, us/them, this/that. It had to be a liberal speech unnerving to conservatives because it was surely not a speech that bowed to the powers of resistance — powers that would return us to the past. Apparently, there are and only can be two poles which must be in opposition. According to this view we must always be in a great conflict of some sort.

So, have the tectonic plates of polarization actually shifted in some way the press has missed? I have no idea, but the President we elected thinks we are a nation facing major issues that we must address for the health of the country and the continuation of this grand experiment we call democracy. At least, that’s what I heard him say, and I think my college Rhetoric and Public Address professor would have applauded.

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Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was...
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  • Andy Dunning

    Jim, good to read your thoughts as always. My reaction was the same as yours. Upon hearing the next day’s commentary I just figured that any mention of Medicare or Social Security that does not presume those programs to be shot through with wasteful excess and in need of immediate cuts is understood as liberal: so far to the right has our public discourse moved. Krauthammer wrote that the speech declared the end of Reaganism and set a course of big government for the next four years. That’s Fox News frothing at the mouth, of course, but still…

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.eaton.58 Rick Eaton

    Jim – Nice essay. I hope your optimism is warranted.

  • james donaldson

    inspired by Jim Conn’s gift of writing on the Presidents inaugural address. A shift in the wind. I think Jim’s view may hold.

  • Tom Griffith

    Jim, two things: first, the press and pundits all speak a dialect of the English language that I call “Inside-the-Beltway-and-in-Three-Buildings-in-New-York.” (For the record, the three buildings are Rockefeller Center (NBC HQ), The New York Times building, and the building that holds the HQ of the Fox-owned Networks!) They all wear their own variety of blinders, can only see the world thru an “us vs. them” prism, and they have no understanding of what even the Deistic founding fathers understood: the Biblical concept of “community.” Forget them, even the ones on MSNBC (whom I particularly like). They just don’t get it. You nailed it; they didn’t.

    Second, in truth, you and I have both been “left of center” our entire careers, (you a bit further left than me!), even though we’ve each expressed our viewpoints, at times, in very different ways, over the years. So we, too, look at the world thru our own prisms; prisms I could best describe as “Biblical-Wholeness-That-Never-Lost-Our-Belief-in-the-Kingdom-of-G0d-as a Present-Day-Reality.” The President speaks that language well, which is why his speech resonated with each of us in the same way,

    Good Job!

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