Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 1:00 PM
Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Monday, Jan. 20 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and offer his analysis President Obama's swearing-in ceremony and inaugural speech.
The transcript follows.
Robert G. Kaiser: Greetings to all. I welcome everyone's commentaries on this speech, and hope we can have a good discussion for the next hour or so.
My first impression: a memorable inaugural address. There haven't been many in my experience--interestingly, Bush's first, eight years ago, was one. But Bush had little to do with the writing of that speech; Obama clearly wrote this one, as any reader of his books could immediately attest.
I was also struck by the shots he took at Bush, with the outgoing president sitting right there. Think how Bush heard this line: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Philadelphia, Pa.: What happened with the oath? In the end, did Obama articulate the proper words as per the Constitution? I looked up the oath after the fact, but now am confused as to the words actually spoken.
Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure we can check this out, and I will see what my colleagues have come up with in the next few minutes. My sense was that Chief Justice Roberts just blew it--screwed up the timing that must have been rehearsed in advance. Obama seemed to realize that this was the case, grinned indulgently, and once corrected Roberts. Interesting moment. Won't do Roberts' reputation any good.
College Park, Md.: Mr. Kaiser -- Was it just me, or did Mr. Obama present a rather bland speech? I had heard he was a gifted orator, but this speech seemed never to really get off the ground, and ended rather quickly as well.
Robert G. Kaiser: Read the text and see what you think then. I thought it was anything but bland.
Helena, Mont.: The visuals are astounding -- that many people at the inauguration. I have been awed by size of his crowds throughout the campaign and have just decided that the American people have wanted to be united and Obama has tapped into that. Don't know if it's because he talks so clearly or if it is the ideas he expresses, but, man, these happy crowds who are willing to endure long hours just waiting are something I will remember about this election and inauguration.
Robert G. Kaiser: I agree. I went down to the Mall this morning to feel the atmosphere before the speech--got there about 9:45 when there were already hundreds of thousands of people, all sharing in an extraordinary atmosphere of good feelings. Then I walked back to The Post against the tide of humanity still arriving or heading toward the Mall. I've been at many huge events on that piece of real estate over the years, but this seemed to dwarf all of them.
Arlington, Va.: Did anyone pick up on the mistake on presidential history in the beginning of the speech. He said "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath." However, there have only been 43 people who have served in the office. Grover Cleveland was president in two non-consecutive terms (22 and 24). So, Obama is the 44th president, but only the 43rd person.
Robert G. Kaiser: Love our readers! Thanks. You are right.
Reston: Why was Vice President Cheney in a wheelchair?
Robert G. Kaiser: The explanation offered is that Cheney hurt himself while packing boxes. Do you believe that?
London: What do you think is most memorable phrase from Obama's address?
Robert G. Kaiser: I was struck by this passage:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honest and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
With these words Obama tried to establish himself as an old-fashioned patriot in the mainstream of American history. I expect we will see him do this again and again. I'm intrigued by the possibility that it is also the truth.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Many commentators are immediately focusing on the "swipes at Bush" in the address. Will this ultimately switch focus, or at least detract, from the message of service to country President Obama seemed to have made his major theme? I personally found that theme was somewhat drowned out, but I am not altogether sure what, for me personally, it was drowned out by.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this good comment/question. Journalists love signs of conflict--look how I jumped at this point too, above. It isn't normal for the new president to take potshots at the old, but you could argue that Obama made these remarks not to take potshots, but to reaffirm to his countrymen that he too realizes how screwed up everything is. It's funny how, as a culture, we shy away from harsh judgments, especially about leaders, at least in ceremonial and public situations. But I think it's true that George W. Bush has left office as a failure, and as the least popular president in a very long time. Was Obama just being a truth-teller?
Maryland suburbs: This is more of a crowd question, but were people standing on the Reflecting Pool - was it frozen solid? On MPT, it looked like they were.
Robert G. Kaiser: I didn't get there, but on Sunday it was not frozen solid, so I doubt it.
N.C.: While I appreciate Obama's "and nonbelievers" nod, there's just got to be a way of saying that which doesn't sound like an insult.
Robert G. Kaiser: I disagree. Wasn't he telling non-believers that they are Americans too? And we actually have tens of millions of them, the polls report.
New York, N.Y.: Is this the largest crowd for an inauguration? If so, whose inaugural comes close?
Robert G. Kaiser: We have no hard numbers. LBJ was said to have attracted a million. I'd bet this was twice that. Let's see what the authorities come up with as a guesstimate.
Ames, Iowa: In my office we gathered round the electronic hearth (computer screen) and listened to the oath of office -- much applause when Barack Obama was officially our president. Several of us remembered when he was here in September 2007 -- when his campaign was a very long shot indeed. We are so proud that we were there at the start and our best wishes go with him.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this...
Bethesda, Md.: It was not his most powerful or moving oration, that's for sure; it was more focused on the specifics regarding the challenges this country faces. It was almost a cautionary speech. "Don't expect miracles -- there's a long road of hard work ahead."
Robert G. Kaiser: ...and for this
D.C.: As the Washington Post reported during the campaign, left-handers have been a force to be reckoned with in presidential politics for the last 60 years. Despite only being 10 percent of the population, six of the last 12 presidents have been left-handed (Truman, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama). What do you make of these lefty dominance?
Robert G. Kaiser: But wait, some of the lefties were righties. This is troubling.
Chicago: Watching on television, it seemed that Obama paused during the oath because of sirens in the distance. Justice Roberts seemed to take it as him forgetting the words, which led to a bit of confusion.
Robert G. Kaiser: No, Roberts messed it up, I think.
Martinez, Calif.: I wonder if one reason the speech felt bland to some was because there wasn't any soundbite-like catch phrase that one can easily recall. I thought it was a beautiful speech, and I can remember some of the ebb and flow of it and certainly the overarching themes and ideas, but no specific content in the "Ask not what your country can do for you" vein. It was a weighty speech, one that I think will take time to process. What stays with me is not phrases but tone and feeling. What I think it offered was confidence and a sense of moving forward. The one phrase that really sticks in my mind is "Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off..." because I want to sing the phrase "Start all over again."
What do you find yourself remembering from the speech?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for a good commentary. As I said already, I liked the passage on the basic American values. I do think the speech built impressively to the conclusion, that it had real momentum. But such judgments are entirely personal--yours are as valid as mine.
Valley Forge, Pa.: I agree with you that Obama's speech was particularly harsh on Bush, but he was merely stating what (let's see, 100 minus 22% approval) 78% of the people feel. I think these things needed to be said. The Reign of Incompetence is over. Do you think Bush will ever recognize the mess he has made?
Robert G. Kaiser: I've already agreed with you above. Yes, I think Bush is not as dumb as many of his critics have wanted to believe. He has, I suspect, already confronted the fact that he failed as president on many, many counts. I think his weird last news conference and "farewell address" both contained evidence of this.
Carrboro, N.C.: One thing I noted about the speech was that Obama suggested that we, as citizens and as a nation collectively, will need to make sacrifices.
The line about "putting away childish things" resonated with me. Our country has been allergic to making tough choices for the past 8 years. I was ready to buy a war bond or ten after September 11th. I was already riding the bus but I was ready to conserve fuel in a more Draconian fashion to reduce our foreign oil dependence. Instead, I was asked to go shopping.
Today, my President asked me to be a citizen again, and not merely a consumer. He has my attention, and I'm ready to hear what he would like me to do. This is motivating and inspiring.
The emerging theme of this speech for me?
"Let's do difficult things together. Rising to meet challenges makes us a great nation."
Did you (or others) hear this as well?
Robert G. Kaiser: You know, I think we have been avoiding tough decisions for a lot longer than eight years. I will shamelessly plug my new book, SO DAMN MUCH MONEY, out this week, which argues, among other things, that out political system has been broken for a long time, and that avoiding tough issues became a sort of hallmark of it over the last generation. Nothing will be harder for Obama than to change the bad habits of the last 30 years or so.
Charlottesville, Va.: Yep, Chief Justice Roberts messed up the oath. He said "...to execute the office of the President faithfully" instead of "to faithfully execute the office...". At the publishing company where I work, we suspect that he was instinctively avoiding splitting the infinitive. However, Mr. Strict Constructionist Chief Justice, one should not edit the Constitution, not even for sound grammatical purposes!
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.
Barretos, BRAZIL: A great moment for us all and reading the speech, I am discovering even more beauty and substance because all the pending main issues have been addressed in a way which gives us hope and responsibility.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this. Consider the enormous agenda contained in this early paragraph:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
I count five huge issues there: war, the economy, health care, education, the environment.
Washington, D.C.: What did you think of the poet? I thought the raw quality of the poem was a real strength and I hope the Post will put the text up soon as I'd like to read it and reflect on it some more.
Robert G. Kaiser: I too would like to read it again. I thought she had a nifty idea. It isn't easy to take in such a poem at first hearing, is it? I expect The Post to print the text; I also expect to be able to read it on the website.
Robert G. Kaiser: The explanation offered is that Cheney hurt himself while packing boxes. Do you believe that?: Barring new information, yes. Do you know something we don't?
Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry, I was being flip. It occurred to me that Cheney's credibility is now so low that people might not take the explanation at face value. yes, that's a personal opinion.
Chevy Chase, Md.: What about the closing prayer by Rev. Lowry? I was proud to hear him specifically call for end to poverty in America, and an end to inequality. I was amused to hear the black-brown-yellow-red-white jingle, which I haven't heard for thirty+ years, but then again, I'm white.
Robert G. Kaiser: I want to read it too. It was poetry, no? And very powerful I thought. Lowery was one of the early leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, if that's the right name, a colleague of M.L. King and a fascinating character. I met him during the Poor Peoples' Campaign when he and others set up a tent city near the Lincoln Memorial--in 1968.
South Bend: While the passage you picked out was my favorite, I was also struck by this one: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." It felt like the left's response to President Reagan's statement in his first inaugural that "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem." Only took 28 years...
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.
Ft. Detrick, Md.: We were watching in a conference room with a mixed crowd of service members, contractors and government employees. There was applause when Pres. Obama took the oath and again at the end of his speech. Overall, the atmosphere was very positive. Until today, we weren't sure we were going to be able to watch at all.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Don't understand your last line--why weren't you sure?+
Caracas, Venezuela: Watching the whole ceremony on tv...brilliant speech...amazing moment!!!A president who is calling to work hard ... Congrats.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you. Many postings from abroad today. We love them.
Durham, N.C.: Do you think that Obama's reference to judging people by what they construct and now what they destroy -- "know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy" a commentary on Gaza and/or Hamas?
Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I did.
Harrisonburg, Va.: Of former Pres. Bush, you wrote: "Yes, I think Bush is not as dumb as many of his critics have wanted to believe. He has, I suspect, already confronted the fact that he failed as president on many, many counts. I think his weird last news conference and "farewell address" both contained evidence of this."
Can you cite the examples that make you think he's aware of what he's done? I've looked for such clues and haven't found any.
Robert G. Kaiser: I can't take the time to go back to those texts now, but he admitted "disappointments" that were really mistakes, including his Social Security gambit and the failure to find WMD in Iraq, and others.
Shanghai, China: Hey, I'm a Chinese student and I, too, watched Mr. Obama's speech (even thought it's midnight here). I'm deeply impressed by his speech but isn't it a little bit too grim for this celebratory moment?
Robert G. Kaiser: Well, its celebratory, but also grim here. I thought the tone was appropriate.
San Francisco, Calif.: Most memorable line?
America has "sipped the swill of segregation and civil war"
Great alliteration and the implication that we would be crazy not to put down that vile draft.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. A good one for sure.
NY, NY: What did you make of Rick Warren's input?
Robert G. Kaiser: Fell flat for me.
State College, Pa.: Robert, I am awed by how people responded to the Reverend's benedictory words. How incredible to watch and listen to! I thought his words were incredibly inspiring...and it was interesting to see how Pres. Obama and people responded.
Robert G. Kaiser: Agreed. Thanks.
NY: So -- are the proceedings reviewed and pre-run/rehearsed? By whom? For example, does someone go through the final draft of the invocation?Preview the musical selections?
Robert G. Kaiser: Very well rehearsed and reviewed, yes.
Frederick, Md.: I thought President Obama's speech was anything but bland, too. However, I thought it had a simple and understated and even anti-rhetorical quality to it. The speech was powerful because it said simple things that had to be said.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the whole Biden was offered Vice President or State is a big deal? I recall during the campaign that when Obama and Biden met, that the offer came up -- whether, given Biden's knowledge and expertise on foreign policy, if he would be happier at State. But Biden obviously said no and accepted the vice presidency. How is this news now?
Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think we know enough about this to comment on it yet.
Harrisburg, Pa.: We were impressed with the upbeat nature of the address. President Obama seemed to very effectively weave it it throughout, while noting the obvious tremendous challenges this country faces. Some great -- and refreshing -- oration here.
Robert G. Kaiser: thank you.
Leavenworth, Kan.: How is the Supreme Court Justice chosen to give the Vice President's Oath?
Robert G. Kaiser: I think Biden chose Stevens, but am not certain. Any Supreme Court Justice will do.
Alexandria, Va.: One of my favorite parts of the speech was Obama's clearsightedness in terms of our use of technology to move forward: "We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."
In a sense, his it was his use of technology -- the paradoxical use of cyberspace -- to touch people at the grass roots level that served the sounding the call to the people to rise in the way of Paul Revere's riding from town to town door to door and calling patriots to arm.
Robert G. Kaiser: Another good passage. And another shot at Bush, restoring science "to its rightful place." Our grandchildren are going to be particularly struck by the anti-science maneuvers of the previous administration, I think.
Baltimore, Md.: Gotta love the show of strength in the "foreign policy sections" of the speech.
First, the outreach to our friends: And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today... know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
And, then, the staunch warning to our foes: "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 know that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
This was a masterful speech, beautifully written and beautifully delivered.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I was struck by the careful choice of words--"peace and dignity," but not "democracy." Wasn't he saying that America can be friends with countries that don't embrace our kind of democratic government, provided they do seek "a future of peace and dignity"?
Minneapolis: While President Obama mentioned that we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers, pastor Rick Warren's focus seemed to be a little less inclusive. What do you think of his decision to include the Lord's Prayer?
Robert G. Kaiser: Warren gave a Christian invocation, no question about that.
Austin, Texas: I think it is difficult to compare Obama's speech to FDR's "Fear Itself" speech, my measure of a masterful modern inauguration speech. The content and delivery of this one reminded me more of Churchill's dealing with the Battle of Britain. Determination filled this speech. Knowing that the political and governmental processes are broken, petty and partisan, and are major contributors to problems is important to developing solutions. Finally, a sense of common purpose in raising up the nation was an appropriate call. In all, this was a well-crafted and believable address.
Robert G. Kaiser: thank you very much.
Nashville, Tenn.: Do you think much will be made of the bungled oath?
Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect it will be the subject of a lot of wing-flapping, yes.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I liked your selection from the speech. Here's another one that I think Obama is uniquely positioned to utter and make manifest:
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 non-believers. 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 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.
"The lines of tribe shall soon dissolve" -- I like that...
Robert G. Kaiser: me too. thanks.
PA: I watched live video feed via my computer (no TV), and was disappointed that during the oath, they never showed the Bible and Obama's hand on it. Was it, indeed, the same Bible Lincoln used? I, too, was surprised that Roberts messed up the oath. Did Roberts himself participate in the run-throughs? Don't they have the words written, anywhere, to refer to? (in case one's mind blanked?)
Robert G. Kaiser: Obama swore on the Lincoln bible.
Arlington, Va.: Is there any relationship between how good a speaker a president is and how effective his presidency is considered after he leaves office? In other words, any correlation betweek speaking skills and effective leadership?
Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. Curiously, we haven't had many really good speakers in the White House in my lifetime. FDR was one, but I was two when he died; Kennedy was a great speaker; Johnson gave some great speeches; Reagan was a great performer/speaker; Clinton was a windbag, but very effective on occasion. That's it. FDR was a great president; JFK was off to a promising start when he was killed; Johnson was both a great and a dreadful president; Clinton I would rank is middling. So there's no clear connection, I guess.
But someone with Obama's gifts for rhetoric has a huge advantage over others who did not have it. The gifts give him a head start, I think.
New York : Its not a dig at Cheney: I thought the same thing: c'mon, this guy moves his own boxes? More likely, he has declined physically to the point where he can't walk or stand up for a lengthy period of time. His physical decline might also have played into Bush's belated breaking away from his influence which began with the firing of Rumsfeld. Too late for the country, alas. Eventually, we'll know the truth about all of this, right?
Robert G. Kaiser: I hope we'll know the truth about it. I don't think your analysis is correct. Cheney has been functioning quite normally in recent months, physically I mean. I have been struck for several years by how overweight he is--for a man with his history of acute heart disease, that seems dangerous.
We have SO much to learn about Cheney and his relationship with Bush. If you haven't already, read Bart Gelman's great book, ANGLER, about Cheney.
Houston, Texas: Well, it does not even have to be a Supreme Court justice -- a local judge in Dallas swore in LBJ on Air Force One on 11/22/63.
Robert G. Kaiser: Good point. Any Federal judge will do, legally.
Radford, Va.: the use of George Washington's quote from Valley Forge was a strong point for me, the wintry weather at the Mall I think will make it's inclusion that much more memorable over time, especially to those in attendance.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you. It was chilly, but when I was on the Mall this morning people seemed to be handling it well. The fact that the sun was out helped a lot.
Columbus, Ohio: I expected a great speech and got a very good speech. I think President Obama needed some help in writing this one, but evidently chose to go it alone. From the "deer in the headlights" look of Wubbya, I don't think ex-President Bush liked it very much. Maybe we are in a period of uninspiring rhetoric but inspired action. That is better than inspired rhetoric and no action.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.
London, United Kingdom: Seems to me that in a speech like that you have to choose one scene, something that'll create an image in peoples' minds, something that'll stay with them. The choice of these patriots huddled in winter, hope and virtue persevering, was powerful. Is that a scene oft-quoted in the American narrative and in speeches?
Robert G. Kaiser: We are not a nation of historians; most Americans, sadly, know very little of their history, so this is not some kind of iconic shared memory. My hunch is that the speech will be most remembered for its FDR-like optimism: "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met."
Northern Virginia: I'm shocked that President Obama would be calling for a "remaking of America." America is a great country, and most Americans don't want the country radically changed. Does anyone in the media find this shocking?
Robert G. Kaiser: Have you been on an extended vacation at the South Pole, or what? We are in bad shape just now, my friend. We need a lot of help. Americans crave substantial changes, all our polling shows that.
San Francisco, Calif.: I watched from Civic Center Plaza, among a crowd of hundreds. The mood was ebullient, with cheers breaking out whenever Pres. Obama was shown (or Mrs. Obama, or his girls).
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Sounds like the crowd on the Mall Sunday for the big concert, which reacted similarly to cutaway shots of the Obamas. We are, I fear, in danger of developing an Obama cult here...
Green Bay, Wisc.: I checked the pictures -- his hand was on the Bible.
Are you ready to give a quick ranking to where this I.A. ranks among all of them?
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. No I am not a ranker. As I said at the outset, I thought this was one of the rare good ones.
Anonymous: I just read the text of the speech. I thought it was very run of the mill and contradictory in parts. It spoke in ways Obama would not have dared speak during his campaign. I am not surprised.
Robert G. Kaiser: I wish you had been more specific. What did he say here that he "would not have dared" say in the campaign? Where were the contradictions?
Truly Inclusive: The first female Speaker of the House, Sen. Diane Finestein leading the events, only the second Roman Catholic Vice President, a Mormon House Majority Leader and an African American President. It is astonishing moment in our history. Truly remarkable for all of us.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Harry Reid, the SENATE majority leader, is a Mormon.
I thought a lot today about my own lifetime of 65 years: I was born into a strictly segregated society here in Washington, marched on civil rights picket lines in the 1950s as a teenager, met the first black employees of The Post when I started here in 1963, and have witnessed the extraordinary rewriting of the society's norms and rules. This is the meaning of the word "history." We change.
That's all for today. Thanks to all for taking part. We enter a new era; it will include I hope many chats!
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