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The History Lessons Obama Hopes We'll Learn

Feb 12, 2013

Sometimes the best way to advance an argument is by looking back.

President Obama's second inaugural address was filled with historical allusions. His State of the Union address on Tuesday, which will lay out a long list of agenda items for the year and his second term, is likely to employ fewer references to the past.

But Obama may well talk about emblematic figures, whether it's the traditional nod to American heroes sitting up in the balcony beside the first lady, or telling the story of other individuals whose lives exemplify the points he wishes to make about immigration, gun control or other issues.

Referring to heroic figures or touchstone moments from the past is a way for politicians to suggest that the cause or legislation they're currently promoting is part of some grand historical struggle that has already met with honor and can meet with success again.

"You're identifying yourself with an agenda that predates you and probably postdates you as well," says Clark S. Judge, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. "You use allusions to the past to talk about the sensibility from which you come, the traditions that you're drawing into, the chain of aspiration that you're seeking to be the next step in."

The reason presidents and politicians like to quote great figures from the past, whether it's Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill, is that it offers them the chance to associate themselves with that level of achievement.

"Every president will find some way to place himself on the same plane as those figures," says Michael Cohen, author of Live From the Campaign Trail, a look at presidential election speeches of the 20th century.

Television-Age Politics

Showcasing a living, breathing hero at the State of the Union is a direct antidote for excessive quotation of Jefferson and Lincoln.

The tradition of saluting individuals who have distinguished themselves in the past year at the State of the Union began with Reagan. This kind of storytelling technique is a part of television-age politics, Cohen says.

"This is the changing nature of politics," Cohen says. "You don't want to come across as this distant figure, but that you're in touch with ordinary Americans."

Just as it's become the norm for the wives of presidential candidates to offer character references at conventions, presidents themselves pick out individuals whose values and accomplishments they can visibly show support for.

All Americans can feel good about a president paying tribute to a wounded vet or an Olympic athlete. But not everyone will embrace the decision by more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress to invite victims of gun violence to Tuesday's speech to illustrate the urgency behind their gun control proposals.

Celebrating Common Victories

In Reagan's case, says Judge, most of those saluted at the State of the Union were not used to make policy pitches but to demonstrate the greatness of the American people.

"It wasn't so-and-so who was an example of House Bill 327 and why we need to pass it," he says. "It was that the true heroes of America are all around us."

But who can we all agree are the heroes? The list of historical figures and events that matter most and appeal on a truly bipartisan basis is always shifting.

"Today, who remembers the halls of Montezuma or the shores of Tripoli?" asks historian Adam Goodheart.

Politicians refer less to the American Revolution than they used to. Instead, more recent events such as World War II or the civil rights movement are likely to illustrate points about where a politician wants to take us from here.

With his celebrated D-Day speech in 1984 ("these are the boys of Pointe du Hoc"), Reagan was arguing to both American and European audiences that victory over the Soviets could ultimately be achieved, as surely as the defeat of the Nazis, says Judge.

"Talking about history and what movements have done in the past argues that we've successfully done this before and it was good for our country and we need to do it again," says Paul Orzulak, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

Your Story Is Our Story

Ted Widmer, another former Clinton speechwriter, notes that some historical allusions are "pleasing and inclusive" and speak to a broad swath of Americans. But some references can be divisive and even strident.

Sometimes politicians will attempt to appeal not to everyone but to specific constituencies. It's common for a politician speaking to a Hispanic leadership group, say, or a trade union to embrace that audience's language and particular heroes as a means of ingratiating himself.

"The allusion is a signal to an already won-over constituency to move them to work for him, even on issues they care about less intensely," says David Bromwich, a Yale University English professor who has studied Obama's rhetoric.

What a president says when addressing one group's convention, though, may not be what he shares with the rest of the country on ceremonial occasions. That's why Obama struck such a chord in the inaugural address with his references to Stonewall, Selma and Seneca Falls (respectively, landmarks in the struggles for rights for gays, African-Americans and women).

Many gays and lesbians wept with Obama's first-ever inaugural mention of their cause (and even their existence) last month. "To me, that was almost more of a tribute of mainstreaming of gays in American discourse than if he had gone into a long description of what happened at the Stonewall Inn in 1969," says Goodheart.

Touchstones Shift Over Time

Goodheart says that all politicians like to use historical events as a kind of shorthand. Such references are a way of acknowledging that what unites Americans is not ethnicity or even language but ideas and a shared past.

Citing history thus works both ways in political speeches. Great events of the past offer a president the chance to clothe himself in the aura of our most hallowed moments — but by what he singles out, the president is also helping to choose which figures are exemplary and which history is most important for the country to remember.

"When President Obama uses a new set of touchstones, it's almost like carving a new face on Mount Rushmore," Goodheart says.

Obama certainly made the attempt. In his second inaugural, he made his own agenda seem like it was the natural endpoint of a long march of history stretching back to the Declaration of Independence, but he also argued that moments such as Stonewall, Selma and Seneca Falls hold special resonance not just for certain groups but for all Americans.

"He's basically saying the outsiders who have principled complaints against the United States then become integrated in the United States," Widmer says. "Their ideas rise up so high that they are articulated by a president at the most important civic moment in our country."

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