One of the chief characteristics of Barack Obama’s speechifying is its contempt for words as anything other than props of self-puffery. Consider, for example, his recent remarks to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy:
“America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation — we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice.”
“Steering those currents”? How could even a member of the president’s insulated, self-regarding speechwriting team be so tin-eared as to write that line? How could the president be so tone-deaf as to deliver it in May of 2010? Hey, genius, if you’re so damn good at “steering currents,” why not try doing it in the Gulf of Mexico?
As for many great “thinkers,” for Barack Obama and his coterie words seem to exist mostly in the realm of metaphor rather than as descriptors of actual action actually occurring in anything so humdrum as reality. And so it is that, even as his bungling administration flounders in the turbulent waters of the Gulf, on the speaker’s podium the president still confidently sails forth deftly steering the ship through the narrow ribbon of sludge between the Scylla of sonorous banality and the Charybdis of gaseous uplift.
Two years ago this week, then-Senator Obama declared that his very nomination as Democratic-party presidential candidate (never mind his election, or inauguration) marked the moment when “our planet began to heal” and “the rise of the oceans began to slow.” “Well, when you anoint yourself King Canute,” remarked Charles Krauthammer the other day, “you mustn’t be surprised when your subjects expect you to command the tides.”
Poor old Canute has been traduced by posterity. He was the Viking king of Denmark, England, Norway, and bits of Sweden, which, as Joe Biden would say, was a big (expletive) deal back in the 11th century. And, like Good King Barack, he had a court full of oleaginous sycophants who were forever telling him, as Newsweek editor Evan Thomas said of Obama, that he’s “sort of God.” So one day, weary of being surrounded by Chris Matthews types with the legs a-tingling 24/7, Canute ordered the footmen to take his throne down to the shore and he’d command the incoming waves to stay the hell out. Just like Obama, he would steer the very currents. Next thing you know, Canute’s got seaweed in his wingtips and is back at the palace wringing out his Argyll socks. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” he said, “for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
In other words, he was teaching his courtiers a lesson in the limits of kingly power. I’m a child of the British Empire and, back in my kindergarten days, almost all the stories we were taught about kings went more or less the same way. Generations of English children learned of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex back in the 9th century. Another A-list bigshot: Winston Churchill called him “the greatest Englishman that ever lived.” One day, during a tumultuous time in the affairs of his kingdom, he passed a remote cottage and called in on the local peasant woman to rest a while. Unaware of who he was, she went off to milk the cow and told him to mind the cakes she’d left on the hearth. He was a big-picture guy preoccupied with geopolitical macro-trends and he absentmindedly let the cakes burn. She took him to task (“You’re happy to eat the cakes but too lazy to keep an eye on them”) but, upon realizing he was the king, begged a thousand pardons. “No, no,” he said. “Entirely my fault.” And there in the rude hovel he humbly turned the woman’s loaves for her.