In Ordinary Times

This week the President mounts the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office. Upon doing so, he gives a speech. It is not a requirement that he do so — but the tradition dates to George Washington. The Inaugural Address is in a rarefied class of speeches, like the State of the Union, that is deemed important, not just a campaign stop.

Across the globe, listeners will tune in, to find out what the future holds. But I have a different question. It’s this: What are we hoping to hear?

In movies that Hollywood makes about politics, it’s always a great speech that turns the tide. The camera, as the speaker speaks, pulls in tight until her face fills the screen. Cutaway shots linger on adversaries melting a bit, nodding their heads as they agree with the power of the argument and the force of the speaker’s convictions. They are moved.

This makes for great theater. It’s understandable that those who perform for their livelihood would believe, as Jack Black puts it in another context in School of Rock, “One great rock show can change the world.” One great performance can change the world.

In extraordinary times, in times of crisis or at turning points, this may be true. On the eve of Civil War, Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” To a nation facing economic calamity, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned us of “a generation of self-seekers” with “no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.” In the bitter chill of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy urged us to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Moving forward from these singular points, America and the world were changed.

But there are other times, ordinary times, when the political speech is just that: words. The speaker does not mount the rostrum seeking to persuade, move, or even to cajole. In ordinary times, the new leader speaks, simply, because that is what is done. The new leader speaks to mark an ascension, and to remind those listening of just who is speaking. Hebert Hoover, coming to office amidst prosperity and the expectation of more, gave a laundry list brimming with optimism, ending by telling us that he had “no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”

This week, are we to hear the speech of crisis, or the speech of ordinary times?

Not many speeches, these days, are meant to change minds or win arguments. It’s not really how politics is done anymore. And yet, in our living rooms, we watch the inaugural speeches hoping for that very thing. We seek to be moved, led. We’re hoping for life, for once, to imitate art and for that speech-giver to grow and become, suddenly, the great orator of old, thundering his argument to the rafters and convincing us by force of will and clarity of thought. We look to the political speech to somehow let us tap into the heart of the speaker, to open a channel from us to her. We yearn to be in that cutaway shot, nodding slowly as we agree with the good ideas we’re hearing and finally applauding as we resolve to move forward together.

It is a desire that we all buy into. But, speeches these days are ghostwritten by committee. They are gone over with a fine tooth comb to make sure they don’t say too much. Absent a crisis, they grow to become litanies and to contain precious little leadership.

The Right would have us believe there is crisis upon us, that bold leadership is required. But the threats that brought us here — Iraq’s reputed vast stockpile of illegal weapons; Al Qaeda’s free rein throughout Afghanistan — now lack singularity. What can be said about the world scene and America’s role in it is that things continue to require “vigilance.” And, here at home, we are faced with the potential that in perhaps three decades our safety net for older folks may fray to breaking. Meanwhile, the Left, too, claims a crisis, only the leadership required is different. The Left (mostly) points to a nation in need of healing and trust, a crisis of “polarization.” But too often , this is merely an emphatic way of stating disaffection.

We do indeed have problems, and in spades. But we lack crisis. It is difficult to imagine to what we must be rallied.

As for me, I don’t listen for the voice of transformational leadership. I doubt I will melt, and slowly nod as the camera moves my way. It would be too much to expect.

Instead, just the fact of the speech itself gives me hope. Two acrimonious elections in a row, with vitriol and accusations flying. And yet, we change power, or affirm it, peacefully and without coup. What better message to take to heart? However we feel about he who holds the Oval Office for another term, we can beam with the knowledge that he is there without bloodshed, and he will leave without bloodshed.

What we are hoping to hear, in the end, is just such a note of hope.

In ordinary times like this, that’s more than enough.

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