Friday, January 14, 2011

In Praise of Democratic Vulgarity

J.E. Dyer and I were impressed by the same thing about President Obama’s speech memorializing the victims of the Giffords shooting; viz., the President’s visible surprise and evident discomfort at the way the crowd reacted. Obama knew that, as Head of State, it was his job to lend the American people his voice, to enunciate thoughts reverberating at the back of many American minds. He evidently expected those present in the auditorium to take his words as an occasion for quiet reflection about themselves and their membership in the American polity. The audience took them, instead, as an invitation to speak insistently and inarticulately for itself.

Dyer thinks Obama’s facial expressions and body language signaled disapproval and perhaps the President’s dawning recognition of the corruption of popular morals that goes back to the 1960s:
“My impression from yesterday’s service is that Obama was genuinely surprised by the untoward reaction of the crowd — and it may well be that he has never given real thought to the proposition that radicalism of all kinds is at odds with the order and seemliness we rely on. In that, he would be characteristic of his academic and political background. But he is a product of that background, not one of its driving forces. That it is he who must now stand before an indecorous people and try to observe decorum is not so much ironic as poignant and sad.”
Maybe my moral sentiments are less refined than Dyer’s, but I had a very different reaction to what happened in Tucson. The crowd’s response didn’t strike me as the expression of anything like 1960s licentiousness.  It sounded to me a lot more like an expression of civic piety. Yes, it was vulgarly self-congratulatory. But at least the crowd was congratulating itself for having civic virtues that any conscientious citizen would want Americans to have.

Think back to two of the finest moments of George W. Bush’s presidency: his solemn speech at the National Cathedral commemorating the victims of 9/11 and his plain-spoken appearance at Ground Zero with a bullhorn in one hand and his other arm wrapped around the shoulders of a guy in a hard hat with an American flag in his clenched fist. The first occasion was a eulogy, delivered with appropriate formality and decorously received.  The second was a democratic pageant where, despite the secret service detail that must have been standing just outside the frame of the televised image, the President properly made a point of being seen standing on equal footing beside American citizens, speaking in language they could recognize as their own. I remember thinking at the time that Bush performed admirably on both occasions.  He visibly understood that they both fell well within his job description.

If you ask me, Obama’s surprise at the crowd’s raucousness was a matter of his having come with a speech designed for the National Cathedral only to discover that his hosts were putting on an affair more like the rally at Ground Zero. I thought Obama did himself proud by realizing that, on this occasion, the presidential thing to do was to step back from lectern occasionally and pick up a bullhorn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem with your comparison is that Bush needed a bullhorn because someone in the crowd yelled: "I can't hear you." Obama already had a microphone. Obama's speech was great; the setting was just weird.