Anna Quindlen: Obama the Orator

Dear president-elect Obama, your Inaugural Address looms, and the weight of both history and reputation is upon you. There is a sense that this should be a great speech, a momentous speech, a speech to make the hair rise on the neck and the heart sing in the breast. Odd, because no one really remembers any of the Inaugural speeches that have gone before. They remember snippets, or what are now called sound bites. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," which wasn't actually Franklin Roosevelt's but was added by his aide Louis Howe. "Ask not what your country can do for you," a kind of political Zen koan. Lincoln's "better angels of our nature," perhaps the most lyrical of all, which he rescued from an exceedingly grand draft by one of his team of rivals that spoke of "the guardian angel of the nation." The grand is the enemy of the great.

Your rhetoric will be judged by great expectations based on little evidence. But it will also be judged on the commonly held opinion that oratory is one of your strong suits. Just as Lincoln's 1860 speech at Cooper Union, for which he was paid $200, transformed him into the front runner for his party's nomination, so the speech you gave at the 2004 Democratic convention turned you from, in your own words, "a skinny kid with a funny name" into someone to watch, to work for, to support and, finally, into the first black president of the United States. "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there's the United States of America"—it was a bell you would keep on ringing as you ran.

So here's my suggestion: keep talking. There was some snark during the campaign that you were merely Mr. Podium, a guy who knew how to take a pretty phrase and sell it in lieu of policy. But now you've got a clutch of people to handle the policy stuff, and only you in the pulpit. No one should underestimate what a succession of inspired secular sermons can mean in a time of civic darkness. There are moments in history when a leader needs to be much more than a manager. He needs to unite, to inspire and to challenge. There's no better way to do that than by delivering a great speech about great matters.

You know that crisis alone doesn't call for oratory. You're the candidate who suddenly decided that he didn't need simply to explain his inflammatory pastor, he needed to give a substantive speech on race. You could almost feel a whole roomful of operatives screaming, "No!" There aren't many issues more difficult and incendiary. In fact, in America there isn't any issue more difficult and incendiary. Your measured and intelligent description of how the stain of slavery taints the nation to the present day managed to acknowledge the challenges for working-class white Americans without minimizing prejudice. You even gave up your beloved grandmother as someone who wasn't comfortable when black men passed her on the street.

Anyone writing on race would have been proud to have written that speech. The word was that you wrote it yourself. Keep that up if you can. The stories of speechwriting in Robert Schlesinger's fine book, "White House Ghosts," suggest that there's an editing process in the West Wing designed to bludgeon all beauty in presidential rhetoric. The committee is the enemy of the eloquent. Ignore the press reactions; when Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, he was overshadowed by a two-hour peroration by the legendary Edward Everett. "The President also spoke," some newspapers reported dismissively.

And remember that specifics are overrated. You will need some in your first State of the Union, or whatever they call it when you've barely figured out where they keep the paper clips. (Whatever you do, don't use the clichéd line that the state of the union is strong, or your credibility will be instantly shot.) But remember the speech your predecessor gave immediately after a hurricane had decimated a major American city and exposed the glaring abyss of class and race that existed there: the people of New Orleans needed hope, and he assured them that they would soon have 3.4 million pounds of ice.

A person gives up a lot for this job, and it certainly can't be to report that the iceman cometh. When your girls set off for their first day at a new school, it was painful to watch the parade of Suburbans and bodyguards. You're now totally in The Bubble, the one that ensures that the person running the country no longer gets any sense of what living here entails. The movie "Dave" sums that up with a climactic long shot in which the putative president walks off alone, leaving the agents and the limo in the distance. You lost that option forever in November.

But when the staff brings you takeout—because giving up privacy is one thing, moo shu pork quite another—I hope you get a fortune cookie with this Chinese proverb: speech is the voice of the heart. There is one good way to appear willing to break out of The Bubble, and that's to talk to the American people. Some people say that YouTube will be your version of the fireside chat. But small-bore intimacy is not necessarily what the people always want from their president. Sometimes it's grandeur, the big ideas, the great thoughts, not as a substitute for action, but as a supplement. A poet will declaim as you're sworn in. After that, the responsibility for civic poetry is all yours.