This time 16 years ago I was in Washington to see the inauguration of No 42, Bill Clinton.
Like now, it was a freezing January in the city. I can remember all the contrasts. Clinton was a huge fan of the saxophone and could play it some.
Early on the morning of the inauguration I walked up to the mall to hear a lone saxophonist practise for the ceremony . The melody was odd. Here we were in midwinter and Summertime was being eased out. Odd too that the marble like perfection of Capitol Building and the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House and all the memorial was an oasis of calm surrounding – back in January 1993 – one of the most dangerous cities in the world with a massive drugs problem, a mayor who was accused of doing crack cocaine, and the highest murder rate of any city in the US.
I was thinking about that raw January this week and being there. I racked my brain and failed to recollect a single sentiment from Clinton’s inaugural address (though I’m sure YouTube will remind me about it). Why that amnesia I just don’t know. I was a young and impressionable journalist and thought that Bill was the bee’s kness.
What I did recall – and recall vividly – from that day was the stunning poem written and read by Maya Angelou that opened with the simple but striking images of a rock, a river and a tree and ended with lines I have often returned to in the intervening years.
“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
The sense of hope in Washington that day wasn’t a figment. Clinton, despite his major flaws, became a very good president and we remember his consummate charm and skills, though knowing that the inspiration and hope that was suggested in January 1993 was never fully realised.
I can’t imagine Barack Obama’s speech slipping quite so easily from memory. It lasted less than 20 minutes but was a masterful creation, both in writing and in delivery… a patient crescendo over many minutes to a powerful and inspiring conclusion.
Parsed, it displayed many of the qualities of classic oratory. Lots of alliteration. Lots of three-claused sentences, the second and third each emphasing a thought or word from the first. Lots of emphatic fallacy, where a concept or assertion is made and reinforced and then demolised by a powerful ‘but’ or ‘however’. Lots of poetic trills and reverses. Think of Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country…” or Roosevelt’s ‘All we have to fear is fear itself’ and see that kind of reverse and poetic repetition applied, layer upon layer, like an artist thickly applying oil to a canvas with a palette knife.
I’ll race through some of the notes I jutted down during his speech where I thought he was very effective.
A nice positive note was struck early on with his upbeat phrase: “our country is still young”.
When he speaks, he uses us and the collective. It’s our journey. It’s we who have achieved, who must embrace change.
He gave a very effective brief history of the US, putting his election as the culmination of the struggle over two and a half centuries, of the prejudices and dark days that have been dispensed with.. those who toiled in sweatshops, who felt the lash of the ship, who ploughed the hard earh and who fell in the civil wards, or abroad in Concord, Gettysburgh and Normandy.
In one of mnay lyrical moments: “They worked until their hands were raw that we might live a better life.”
And the reference to his own heritage and race, that he is the first black man to take the oath of office. He said that 60 years ago his own father would not have got served near the place where he was sworn in as President today.
Then the transition into the present, using the thought “our capacity remains undiminished” as a bridge.
The could be no more putting off unpleasant decisions.
“Starting today we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the work of remaking America.”
He then spelt out how that would be done, with roads, bridges, digital cables, and technology.
And a major plank of the new policy will be green tech. If it happens, we’ll all be in the clover… almost literally!
“We will harness the sun and the wind and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”
And he then deftly talked down his critics who said that his lofty plans were in the Don Quixote vein.
He pointed to what “free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose.”
And another bridge – ‘the ground has shifted’ – brought him to a new thematic passage… America and its place in the world.
Early on there was one of the strongest lines in the speech, and something that bodes very strongly for American foreign policy.
“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
He asserted that American ideals still light the world, offered the hand of friendship to Muslims throughout the world by exploring what was of mutual benefit.
And a lovely line directed at leaders of many of the more volatile countries and movemements that they would be “judged by what you build rather than what you destroy”.
He reminded his audience – a million people on the Mall alone and just abut everybody on the Globe – that America was ready to lead once more, would continue to fight terror, and remained the most powerful country in the world.
But the powerful over-riding thought.
“The world has changed and we must change with it.”
So much promise. So much hope. So much expectation.
There has always been the danger of overburden. Let us sincerely hope that the record of 44 will be as magnificent as his prose.