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On Hearing Obama Speak Paine’s Words

Knowing of my lifelong admiration and affection for the Revolutionary patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and my recent efforts to redeem his life and labors, friends have been asking what I make of the fact that Barack Obama quoted my radical-democratic hero in his inaugural address.   Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.  While it definitely excited me to hear Paine’s words spoken to the nation and the world, it also seriously bothered me – in fact, it frustrated and angered me – that our new president couldn’t bring himself to actually cite Paine’s authorship of those words, and left me wondering what it might signify politically. 

Let’s not forget that Ronald Reagan, to the chagrin of conservatives like the Burkean George Will (for conservatives had always despised Paine and sought to suppress his memory and legacy), regularly and joyfully quoted Paine’s line from Common Sense – “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” – in his 1980 presidential campaign and that in contrast to Obama, Reagan enthusiastically cited Paine’s authorship.  Believe me, I’m not worried that Obama is a conservative.  But his failure to pronounce Paine’s name makes me wonder what kind of liberal he is.  The best I can do right now is to recount the thoughts and sensations that ran through my mind on hearing Obama recite Paine’s words…

Watching the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama not only inspired me, but also, I confess, made me teary-eyed.  The wonders of a democratic transfer of power...  The first black president...  The huge crowds gathered on the Mall amidst the monuments and memorial to Washington, Lincoln, and the veterans of World War II…  The end of the Bush Administration and the possibility that hope might now trump fear, and that “Yes, we can” would mean something quite different than simply going to Disney World and shopping at the mall…  Hell, I could practically hear Paine – not Reagan – saying “We have it in our power…”

Eager for change – democratic change, in which “We the people” redeem America’s purpose and promise and once again extend and deepen freedom and equality – I attended as best I could to every line of the new president’s inaugural address.  I paid particular attention to his historical references, trying to read them for signs and portents.  And of course, given the terrible crisis we face – not to mention my current efforts to write a book on the Four Freedoms – I listened with the thoughts of Franklin Roosevelt in my head, wondering if Obama possessed the liberal, progressive and, yes, radical commitments and aspirations that FDR did.

Half-way through, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the inaugural address.  I loved it that Obama spoke of working people’s lives and struggles in lines such as:  “For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.  For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.  For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.”   I welcomed the inclusiveness of “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers.”   And yet, recalling FDR’s talk of “economic royalists,” I was disappointed by the tepidness of Obama’s observation that “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”  I wanted him to indict those who have so selfishly and viciously governed public and corporate life for so many years.

Still, I continued to listen closely…  Then I heard Obama state: “In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.  The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing.  The snow was stained with blood.  At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people.”  And suddenly I found myself leaping out of my chair and shouting, “He’s going to quote Paine!”   And so he did:  "Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

But a few moments later I began to wonder…  Was I wrong?  Were those not Paine’s words?  For Obama had moved on, leaving people to think they were George Washington’s. 

I ran to the computer and sent out this confused message:  “More on the speech later – but I must say I thought we were going to hear Paine's words when Obama spoke of Washington along the Delaware....”  But then I thought again and realized that, of course, they were Paine’s words, though words not as famous as “These are times that try men’s souls,” which open The Crisis.  And I quickly dashed off a fresh message:  “THEY WERE PAINE'S WORDS!!!!!!”

I felt good.  Yet just a few moments later it hit me.  Obama had not mentioned Thomas Paine himself.  I felt agitated.  How could I explain it…   Accident?  Not a chance.  Ignorance?  Come on, Obama is an intellectual.  The fault of a presidential speechwriter (the young Jon Favreau)?  Not likely, since Obama took the lead in writing the address.  A desire not to aggravate Pastor Rick Warren, who surely cares little for Paine the militant deist?  Doubtful, since Obama had already spoken of “nonbelievers” (which in any case Paine was not) – plus Reagan himself hadn’t hesitated to talk of Paine before a national gathering of evangelicals.  Or, I began to worry, was it due to a desire to avoid association with radicals (a problem he definitely had had on the campaign trail)?  Maybe, for by leaving the image Washington and his troops in everyone’s mind, Obama could almost sound like a Republican…

Admittedly, they’re only words…

But I don’t mean that.  They’re not just words.  They’re words about history.  They call upon and shape our historical memory and imagination.   

Then again, I remind myself, Paine’s persistent presence in American consciousness never really depended on presidents (though notably, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt did much to promote Paine’s place in public memory).  Paine’s vision and arguments were sustained and advanced from the bottom up by freethinkers, workingmen’s advocates, suffragists, abolitionists, socialists, anarchists, populists, progressives, liberals, labor organizers, and sixties radicals. 

And now, I guess, it’s up to us.

So, here we are.  It’s almost January 29 – Paine’s birthday.  In fact, this year in June we will mark 200 years since his passing.   Let us toast Paine’s life and labors.  And let us – those of us who believe like Paine that “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth” – educate our fellow citizens about Paine’s life and labors, encourage and compel our president to pursue freedom, equality, and democracy, and campaign to put a monument on the Mall to Paine, so that the next time we inaugurate a president he or she will not only proudly proclaim Paine’s name, but also see his image standing alongside those he inspired and encouraged to create the nation, sustain the Revolution, and make America freer, more equal, and more democratic.