A speech at the Lincoln Memorial, on the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest American speech since Lincoln breathed his last, is a speechwriter’s nightmare. It is like lighting a bonfire on the surface of the sun.
The Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not only an example of skilled rhetoric; it was a moment of culmination. It was the culmination of a literary form: African-American preaching — practiced by four generations of the King family — with its weaving of the King James cadences, folk spirituals and patriotic texts. It was the culmination of America’s defining historical struggle: a century of African-American demands for the fulfillment of national promises made at emancipation, betrayed during Reconstruction and mocked by segregation. And it was the culmination of a distinctly American type of leadership: the revolutionary conservative. The speech managed to be both radical and reassuring — demanding freedom now, precisely because our founding ideals admitted no other course.
This fulfillment of craft, history and leadership seemed less like a speech than a birth, or, more precisely, the kind of national rebirth that also took place at Gettysburg. Both Lincoln and King demonstrated the most remarkable power of rhetoric: the power of trauma given meaning. Both summarized and summoned forces beyond themselves. Georg Friedrich Hegel talked of a “world spirit” that mediates universal ideals through the instrument of great men. King and his contemporaries saw a different spirit at work. Before his Lincoln Memorial speech, an aide told King, “Look, Martin, let the Lord lead you. You go on and do what the Spirit say do.”
During President Barack Obama’s Lincoln Memorial speech, he affirmed that “No one can match King’s brilliance.” And the president wisely did not try. But his speech showed signs of serious craft. Obama paid homage to King’s cadences — “Because they kept marching ” — without straining to compete with them. He found a way to mention his own historical role — “and, yes, eventually the White House changed” — without sounding messianic. And he subtly downplayed comparisons to King by drawing attention to those in the March on Washington — “men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame” who would “liberate us all.”
The most instructive contrast is not between two speeches separated by half a century, but between two leaders. In 1963, King was introduced by A. Philip Randolph as “the moral leader of the nation.” Obama is a successful but polarizing Democratic politician. King sought to focus and sharpen ethical choices; Obama takes pride in seeing moral complexities. King set out a millennial vision of equality and national healing; Obama talks of health reform, the minimum wage and helping the middle class.
This shift in leadership is, itself, a kind of historical fulfillment. No president can be a millenarian moralist in the same way a preacher can. The nation would quickly grow tired of trumpet calls and church bells. With great power come mundane responsibilities.
But Obama’s speech showed some of his signature weaknesses in the discharge of those responsibilities. His tone was inclusive and gracious — until he considered his political opponents. However accurate or inaccurate you regard these charges, it is not a good sign when polarization seeps into ceremonial celebrations.
President Obama is correct in his diagnosis of the economic challenge that lies beyond legal equality: “Upward mobility has become harder.” But his time in office so far will hardly be remembered as a period of innovation in encouraging opportunity and the creation of social capital. The president can blame Republican obstruction. But that does not explain the general absence of creative policy.
As the president said, we have traveled far since the March on Washington, only to arrive at different challenges. But our politics seems unequal to them on every side.