COLUMBUS — Dr. Daniel Behr of Mount Vernon Nazarene University can affirm that Tuesday was a good day to be an authority about political speeches.
After spending a couple of hours commenting on the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States for the Ohio News Network cable channel, the communications professor devoted part of his drive back to Mount Vernon to talking to the News via cell phone. Behr is chairman of the Department of Communications at MVNU, and teaches classes on rhetorical criticism, communication and rhetorical theory, and the history of American public address. MVNU adjunct professor Amy Rogan, who teaches classes on video and media, also works as a producer at ONN in Columbus, and invited Behr to participate in the news network’s inaugural coverage.
Behr said he greatly enjoyed commenting on the president’s address.
“It was very different from the campaign,” Behr said, noting that it was less rhetorical, more straightforward, more simple and much more constrained by the needs of the occasion.
He pointed out that some were expecting more oratory in the address, but that Obama concentrated on the three important parts heard in most inaugural speeches, namely, 1) expressing gratitude to the electorate, 2) giving the historical context of the moment, and 3) crafting the leader’s vision for the future. Behr said that although some presidents have dwelled on the first two, such as Woodrow Wilson, who devoted most of his World War I speech to the historical context, Obama was clearly aiming to talk about his vision for the nation.
To describe that vision, Obama used language that described ideas with imagery instead of in catchy sound bites. One passage that did catch Behr’s ear was the sequence of lines after Obama quoted the Scriptural admonishment “the time has come to set aside childish things.” From the following exhortations, Behr was particularly struck with the phrase that it was time “to choose our better history,” a call to behave with honor and responsibility, to craft individuals’ destiny instead of passively letting it shape individuals. Obama’s themes were that Americans must put aside childish, petty differences and take responsibility for the country’s actions and impacts throughout the world.
“It will be interesting to see how his relationship will develop with his own party,” Behr said, noting that some of Obama’s comments may have been specifically intended as a warning toward Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has talked of pursuing charges against individuals in the Bush administration for their conduct during the previous eight years. The speech made it clear that the focus must be on looking ahead, not looking back.
Although Obama defined the historical framework of his administration strongly, Behr said he was surprised the president didn’t refer more specifically to African-American history, nor particularly to Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated Monday. But Behr said he did not doubt that this was exactly the speech Obama meant to give. Unlike the outgoing president George W. Bush, he said, Obama takes an active hand in the writing of his addresses.
Behr said the speech was fairly typical for inaugural addresses, which have been modest in length since 1840, when newly elected President William Henry Harrison spoke at length during a massive downpour and ended up coming down with pneumonia and dying a few weeks later. Behr added that relatively brief, solemn addresses match the spirit of the ceremony itself, which was crafted by the founding fathers to be short on ceremony in order to further distinguish the United States from the royal pomp and circumstance of Great Britain.
“There was a bit too much hyperbole involved with the lead-up to this speech,” Behr said. “I think Obama understood more than the press did that the inaugural address is a part of the ceremony of this nation.”