Speechifyin’ Gets Serious In ‘09

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - February 04, 2009
| Del.icio.us

This is “speechifyin’ season,” i.e. the opening of the Hawaii state Legislature, the governor’s State of the State address. And, in this auspicious year, the inaugural address of our favorite son Barack Hussein Obama, sworn in a couple of weeks ago as the 44th president of the United States.

Great expectations greeted Obama as he prepared to speak in the cold of Washington Jan. 20. He had, over the previous four years, established an oratorical reputation unrivaled by anyone in politics since John F. Kennedy.

His “red state/blue state” speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention put him on the national stage. His Des Moines speech during the Iowa caucus season outshone his rivals and contributed mightily to his win there. His speech on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and race drew raves from across the country. And his election night address in Grant Park in Chicago was one for the ages.

So we expected much - too much, I think. And we should-n’t have. A week before the Inaugural, historian Jill Lepore published an essay in The New Yorker on “The Speech” through history. She relies heavily on the journal entries of President James A. Garfield, elected in November 1880 and awaiting his own swearing-in the following March.


To prepare for the event, Garfield read through the inaugural addresses of all his predecessors - from George Washington to Rutherford B. Hayes. He was not impressed. “Those of the past are dreary reading,” Garfield wrote. “I have a mind to make none.” He gave one, of course, and it joined the ranks of the undistinguished. Other presidents after him would do better - John F. Kennedy’s ringing “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country” - but, in Lepore’s opinion, not much better.

Obama’s speech also failed to inspire. The fact of his inauguration certainly did, but not the speech. It was a tough speech about bad times past and tough times ahead. It reads better than it was delivered, particularly “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of the tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Closer to home we expect less, and most certainly in these times of fiscal dread. That’s what Colleen Hanabusa, Calvin Say, Sam Slom and Lynn Finnegan gave us on opening day of the Legislature, and Gov. Linda Lingle in her State of the State.

Lingle spoke of “the daunting task we face in the months ahead;” Hanabusa of cringing “when the Council on Revenues said the deficit for the upcoming biennium will be $1.8 billion - a 25 percent reduction in general fund revenues,” and Say of implementing “some level of reform of state employee benefits in order to maintain basic services, avoid layoffs and balance the budget.”

Republicans - eight of them in the 76-member state Legislature - are woefully out of power, giving license (it sounded ) to dream a little. Said East Honolulu’s Slom: “Your minority approaches this legislative session not with fear, but with enthusiasm for the opportunities that these tough times present.” And House Minority Leader Finnegan stressed the GOP’s commitment “to creating better opportunities” for “future generations of Hawaii’s people” by supporting clean energy and high-tech job creation.

No. Neither in Washington on Jan. 20 nor in Honolulu on Jan. 21 or 26 was poetry to be heard - just serious men and women facing serious times.

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