The first Language Log post on today's inaugural might have been Bill Poser's numerical gotcha, and the second one might have been Ben Zimmer's dissection of the Roberts/Obama oath flub, but the first Language Log commentary, at least in some sense of that phrase, was my interview with PRI's The World. The interview began shortly after 1:00, as soon after the speech as I could hike the 10 blocks or so to the WXPN studios and meet up with the producer who kindly guided me to a microphone.
It should be aired sometime later today, in some form — "we'll rip it to shreds in editing", said the host in a friendly tone. The interview gave me renewed respect for the talking heads who need to think of something coherent and interesting to say about events as they unfold, so in this case I'll be happy to ripped to shreds, as long as they reassemble me in a not-too-stupid-sounding way.
Meanwhile, here are the notes that I took with me to the interview, fleshed out a bit in the interests of coherence.
My first impression: this was very much the speech of someone who was once a community organizer. For example:
"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents."
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."
"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
"This is the price and the promise of citizenship."
If President Obama makes this work, then phrases like "a new era of responsibility" and "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America" may be remembered in the way that President Kennedy's "Ask not" trope has been. But we should remember that the theme of the 2001 inaugural — bipartisan civility, "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character" — has been forgotten, but not because there was anything wrong with the rhetoric.
From the point of view of international relations, the key theme of President Obama's speech seems to me to have been the repudiation of perceived mistakes of the previous administration, framed as restoration of traditional American values, and tempered by some stern glances in the direction of hostile nations and groups:
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."
"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
I thought that the following paragraph was ambiguous in an interesting way:
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Literally, this addresses three groups with whom the U.S. can be seen as having a troubled relationship: the Muslim world; leaders who "seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West"; and corrupt, repressive and undemocratic leaders. And the words addressed to "the Muslim world" are quite positive: "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect". But in the context of that paragraph, I suspect that most Americans will identify those who "seek to sow conflict", and who are enjoined to earn respect by building rather than destroying, as the leaders of Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, Hamas and so on, not (say) Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea. And likewise, the clenched fists of the third sentence are more likely to be identified with Ahmadinejad or Assad than with Putin or Hu Jintao.