Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Initiate (inaugurate?) the new year of 2017 with a serious look at the topics of political language as represented by the addresses given by newly inaugurated Presidents. If I were able, it would be less than the 1,000 words herein, but sorry.

Also gives me a chance to put in another good word for a President who continues to rise in my estimation, James Garfield. Not for his actions as President, though in his short time he did a lot, but because of his lifetime accomplishments.

Much of this is based on a January 12, 2009 article in The New Yorker magazine by Jill Lepore. You will notice a much more level and less antagonistic political attitude in that 2009 article than we see today, particularly the disdain that is typically leveled at Republicans in general and the "deplorables" in particular. Their apparent audience today seems to be that minority that resides on the coasts and subsists on lattes, kale and free range chicken with a liberal dash of contempt for people who work for a living and live elsewhere. Figures--Obama had just won.

James Garfield was a Republican (gasp) who is praised in Lepore's article (double gasp), born in a log cabin, but not, in the author's opinion, the match for Lincoln, another member of the log cabin fraternity. At least when it came to oratory. Garfield continued as a candidate and as President to further the principles of not only abolishing slavery but achieving full citizenship for Negroes (now known as African Americans…or just Americans?) to the chagrin of Democrats.

Frankly, I am not an expert, but it is difficult to argue about Lincoln's status as the finest speechmaker to occupy the White House, and his inaugural addresses are pretty darn good. For instance, see the suggestion and his rewrite:

Lincoln gave a draft of his first inaugural to his incoming Secretary of State, William Seward, who scribbled out a new ending, offering an olive branch to seceding Southern states:

I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

But it was Lincoln’s revision that made this soar:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Today we can't see anything about these addresses without seeing Kennedy's "Ask not…" written for him by fellow Nebraskan, Ted Sorenson. But it wasn't a great address…just pretty good.

One of the stellar points made in the article is that every nineteenth century inaugural except Zachary Taylor's mentions the Constitution, another fact and sentiment noticeably absent in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. Listen up when you hear the oath of office--they do not swear to serve the people but to "uphold the Constitution." Thoughtful people have worried that "By appealing to the people, charismatic Chief Executives were bypassing Congress and ignoring the warnings of—and the provisions made by—the Founding Fathers, who considered popular leaders to be demagogues, politicians who appealed to passion rather than to reason". This worry has been extended to the appointments to the Supreme Court which invites disaster.

Another point, similar in tone and potential impact is that the speeches in the twentieth century have become pandering, sloganeering and begging for applause. Part of this is the change in the society and the "American" language, but part of it is, regrettable, the "absence of precision, the paucity of ideas and the evasion of every species of argument." The speeches are mostly written by journalism graduates who have been brought up on Strunk and White's "Elements of Style ("Omit needless words") and Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" ("Never us a long word where a short one will do"). 

At this point, take another look at Lincoln's speeches--I would maintain that he conformed to Elements of Style and Orwell but retained an elegance and grace totally absent in today's speeches.

Back to my man, James Garfield. He was not inaugurated until March, as was the law then, but he worried in his diary about the speech from early after the election, even going so far as to consider scrapping the whole idea. After all, there is no legal reason to make such an address, just the custom established by Washington.

In the end, it was passable:

My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers’ God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.

"Race relations" would be the current phrase. Worse than they have been in most of our lifetimes. Maybe things will get better, but the divisive attitudes make us worry. My vote was for Trump, but my hope is that his inaugural address will be a bit more than tweets. Let us hope for a map for the future, a guide to actions and activities that can unite this great land. We really need the elites, the press and many celebrities to embrace a society where their views are heard and considered, not just their bile directed at the rest of us. Let's review the lesson as stated by Jefferson in his first inaugural:

If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

In the lingo of today, comments attributed to the military and police: "I hate what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

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