Barack Obama aims to hit benchmark set by Abraham Lincoln
Barack Obama must make brevity, honesty and humility his watchwords in his second inaugural speech if he is to live up to the benchmark set by his hero Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago.
In the White House Situation Room there is a suite of rather old-fashioned looking digital clocks that hang above the presidential seals of office, spelling out the time in oblong red numbers in mission-critical places around the world, including the location of the President himself at any given moment.
But as the hours count down towards Barack Obama’s second inaugural celebrations, America’s first black president and his staff will be measured not just against the tick-tock of daily deadlines that come with organising a party for up to a million people, but against the grand sweep of history.
Those who have been in the thick of it before, recall how time telescopes wildly in the run up to inauguration day, as White House members of staff find themselves juggling demands that are petty one minute, and profound the next.
What to do, as happened last week, when the pastor selected to give the inaugural benediction turns out to have been off-message on gay rights? (Answer: dump him, quick and release a faintly McCarthyite statement promising to find someone new whose “beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.”)
Far more importantly, how will Mr Obama’s second inaugural address live up to the historical benchmarks set by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address more than 150 years ago? And how will Mr Obama answer the call of a divided America, in a changing world?
“It is an incredibly intense period,” recalls Jeffrey Lord, a former political aide in the Reagan White House, “aside from doing your day job – drawing up gun control measures or strategising over the debt ceiling – you cannot escape the fact there’s all these people running round in the front yard with hammers constructing all this stuff.”
Across that front yard – or the North Lawn of the White House to use its official title - the bullet-proof viewing dais on Pennsylvania Avenue is already built, and the work crews are tightening the last nuts and bolts on the temporary grandstands where the elite invitees will review the inaugural parade.
The stars including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder have all confirmed, and the fashion pundits are all speculating on who will design the First Lady’s ball gown, and whether it flows when she sashays onto the floor with her husband at the Inaugural Ball.
And as in that memorable episode of the West Wing when President Jed Bartlett is gearing up for his second inaugural, in all the panic over the speech-writing, someone will be detailed not to forget the bibles. (Mr Obama will use two laden with symbolic importance – those of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.)
But all this is really so much ephemera: in another corner of the White House, over late nights and boxes of curling take-away pizza, Mr Obama’s speechwriters, led by the 31-year-old wunderkind Jon Favreau, have been agonising over the content of a speech that might – and only might – be remembered decades, even generations hence.
It is the ‘big one’ that presidential speechwriters both dread and covet, according to one former presidential speechwriter. Success could see phrases set in stone on a monument in The Mall, or at the very least, the lintel of a presidential library. Failure brings the agony of a golden opportunity missed.
History relates there are many more failures than successes. For every immortal utterance from a John F Kennedy - “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you...” or a or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt - “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – there are acres of redundant verbiage, now long forgotten.
“I’m generally not a fan of inaugural speeches; and most have been pretty lack-lustre,” says Paul Orzulak, a former foreign policy speechwriter to Bill Clinton, “the danger is that the writers get stuck with their heads in the clouds, searching for the words that are going to be carved in marble, when Obama is actually at his most effective when rooted on the ground - telling a story. Personally I hope that’s what he does.”
The difficulty for writers is reconciling competing time-horizons – issues that must be resolved months, years and even centuries hence, all ticking away in the back of the writers’ mind, each demanding a different tone, rhythm and register.
The next few months in Washington will be all about bumping against the debt ceiling (the cash runs out in March) and taking on the gun lobbies; but those short-term demands must also be set against the need to preserve political capital to win that crucial ‘first year’, after which a second-term president’s power inexorably begins to wane.
Mr Obama will want to avoid the fate of every other recently re-elected president whose grand notions of a lasting legacy were quickly sunk by scandal and ineptitude. Richard Nixon was finished by Watergate while Ronald Reagan was sapped by the Iran Contra scandal; Mr Clinton lost his way with Monica Lewinsky and George W Bush never recovered from Hurricane Katrina and the cost of launching two unwinnable wars: but what for Barack Obama?
“I think he’ll go for broke. As a second-term president you have no choice,” predicts Mr Lord, the Reagan aide, “When a president is first elected and sworn in, the presumption is that the guy could be there for 8 years. By the time he gets to his second inaugural, everyone knows it is ‘four-and-out’.
“After a year everyone’s thoughts start to turn to the future, they start to wonder what it would be like if it was a Hillary Clinton, a Joe Biden or a Marco Rubio in the White House? The sand is already running through the hourglass, and it happens faster than you ever imagine,” he says.
And that is the point where - hubristic or not - thoughts inevitably begin to turn away from the bustling corridors of Congress and cramped offices in the West Wing, to the weightier judgement of history.
Even before he speaks, Mr Obama will mount the podium on the west front of the Capitol on a day laden with significance. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington when Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, and the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and that promised never to give up on the great enterprise of democracy - “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Mr Obama has often been mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln. Not as his equal, but the symmetry of America’s first black president starting his political journey from the same place, Springfield, Illinois, as the man who emancipated the slaves, is lost on no-one.
Lincoln’s magisterial second inaugural address, uncontestably the greatest of all inaugurals, still contains the recipe for a great speech come Monday at noon, says Dr Ronald White, a Lincoln historian and author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural.
Firstly, Mr Obama must avoid the pitfalls of almost all second inaugurals by not making it longer than his first. “Lincoln learned that lesson,” said Dr White, “The Gettysburg Address was 272 words. The second inaugural was 701 words. Lincoln delivered it in just six or seven minutes and people were still arriving when he was finishing.”
Secondly, Lincoln dared to be honest. He confronted the American people frankly about the issue of slavery, an institution that cost the nation four devastating years of civil war. “People expected Lincoln to talk about the Confederacy - the guilty and innocent - but he understood this was the moment to give something short, inspirational and from the heart,” said Dr White, “He confronted the evils of slavery and avoided the usual exercise in self-congratulation, and talk about ‘this great nation of America’. It was a great risk, but Lincoln took it.”
And lastly, Lincoln succeeded because, unlike many a re-elected president, he didn’t fall for his own publicity. “In the Gettysburg address, there is not one personal pronoun and in the second inaugural, only two,” Dr White concludes, “Lincoln didn’t talk about his ‘mandate’ – a phrase you hear now from Mr Obama – but directed all the attention away from himself to the values of the great democratic experiment. He understood that he was a spokesperson for something larger than himself.”
Brevity. Honesty. Humility. If Mr Obama dares to dream of even coming close to matching his hero, these must be his watchwords.
Peter Foster in Washington, Telegraph.co.uk