Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning struck me as a little meh. There were some nice touches–as in his Inaugural address, he gave a shout-out to those “who subscribe to no faith” and to “humanists,” an encouraging break from the you-can’t-be-moral-without-being-religious rhetoric of the past eight years. And he started to build up to the idea that we all have responsibilities to one another, a theme that soared in his 2004 DNC keynote and his 2006 address to Rick Warren’s HIV/AIDS conference.
But the build-up ended almost as soon as it began, and the speech never really went anywhere. It did, however, include a few mis-steps. Obama cited a quote from “the Torah” that is actually attributed to Hillel and doesn’t appear anywhere in the Torah. And he ended up inadvertently using anti-abortion language with the line: “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being.” Sure enough, the Family Research Council quickly sent out an email to its supporters highlighting Obama’s “stunning, pro-life statement.”
The address was a reminder that presidents don’t have time to write their own speeches once they get to the White House. Obama’s 2006 speech to the Call to Renewal gathering was one of the smartest discourses on the proper role of religion in public life I’ve ever heard, largely because he spent weeks writing it himself. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s most eloquent remarks on religion came when he tossed away his speechwriters’ drafts, as he did at the White House prayer breakfast in 1993.
One of the most popular stories I heard from former Clinton aides when I was researching my book on Democrats and religion was about the short speech he gave at the Commerce Department just after Ron Brown’s plane crashed in 1996. His speechwriters had half an hour to quickly type up remarks and they called Alexis Herman to ask if Brown had a favorite Bible verse they could use. She was distraught and rattled off a few sentences, but no one in the speechwriting shop knew the verse or the exact wording. They put Herman’s paraphrase into a draft and rushed it over to Clinton.
Clinton scanned the text and upon coming across the paraphrased verse told an aide, “Oh, this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself. That’s the one I’ll use.” And he did, quoting from memory in the middle of the speech. Eventually, Clinton brought Terry Edmonds into his speechwriting operation, in part because of Edmond’s familiarity and facility with religious language and ideas. Obama might want to find someone who can do the same for him.
(Pre-emptive note: No, I’m not angling for a job. I have a pretty sweet one already, and besides, didn’t Jay Carney already take the TIME slot in the administration?)