Great men. Men of honor, of words. Words do matter, and these four, Obama, Kennedy, Lincoln, and Jefferson demonstrate the point. We in America are blessed that men who commanded words also commanded the birth of this nation.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” A powerful sentence of one syllable words, save one. Everyone knows who said it. Most of us remember the inaugural sentence that ultimately led to the Peace Corps. Most of us remember that John Kennedy’s leadership united the country behind the space program – a program that has enriched all of our lives with technological innovation. Many of Kennedy’s actions are lost to memory – but his words live on.
For what do we remember Abraham Lincoln? The Civil War? The Gettysburg Address? The Emancipation Proclamation? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Garry Wills wrote a national bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize with his book titled, “Lincoln at Gettysburg.” subtitled, “The Words that Remade America.” Lincoln spoke succinctly, “… Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are men on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field... ‘ Was Lincoln merely speaking in ‘platitudes?’
Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was masterful in the application of parallel structure. “... We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What a beautifully constructed sentence.
John McCain and Sarah Palin – both fearful of Obama – have suggested that Obama merely speaks in platitudes. Wills suggests that Lincoln did not address specific issues “...because he wanted to lift his ideal of America as the Declaration’s nation above divisive particulars.”
When we listen to Barack Obama give his victory speeches we hear a man who wants to lift up this nation with hope. He knows that he is not often addressing particulars – but that is his intention – his desire is to unite. Obama has addressed specific issues in great detail during debates, he is no fool. But he knows that there are times and places for oratory and for action.
The policy wonks of Palin and McCain come off as stilted and boring. Their rhetoric is divisive. They do not have the grasp of leadership of a Lincoln or a Kennedy or a Jefferson, or an Obama. Colin Powell referred to Obama as a “… transformational figure …” Transformational figures are people who command their language, who grasp the urgency of now.
Ken Burns is a filmmaker – an historian – Burns created this epitaph of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: