Giving thanks for words well-delivered

November 27, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

"... The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Americans were scared, but they got it.

In the midst of the Great Depression, struggling to feed their families, they kept hope alive with the help of FDR.

Words well-delivered can be a tonic for despairing souls, something to remember at Thanksgiving. As we have seen again recently, words can stir us to rise above economic calamity or reinvigorate our democracy.

And it's not simply about winning elections. In Maryland, we see that power now in the efforts of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop, taking the grandeur of music to inner-city children.

In a different sphere, Cal Ripken showed the world how language can be simultaneously humble and eloquent.

Language can be full of cynicism as well. We've all had great fun mocking politicians. We turn our unforgiving gaze on empty, if not dishonest, promises. But we don't give up. We expect leaders who earn our trust and make us believe in ourselves.

Well-crafted, insightful rhetoric conveyed by a quirky, patrician voice or by a virtual newcomer with the soaring baritone of a passionate pastor.

Compare, if you dare, the presidential language of the last eight years with the speeches of President-elect Barack Obama. His opponents sought to neutralize the power of his words by suggesting there was little of substance to support them. The voters answered for the candidate, turning out by the tens of thousands to hear him.

On election night, he said, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

"It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference."

He gave credit to an audience of involved voters determined to be a part of their democracy. Of course, long before Obamamania, Americans had been working for change, and not just political change.

In Maryland, Ms. Alsop has put her passion, her eloquence and $100,000 of her own money into a program called OrchKids at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in West Baltimore. Kids will learn the math and poetry and joy of music with a team of musician-educators.

"If these kids have one of those Eureka moments - 'This is for me!' - that's great. But there's a bigger idea. I want them to feel the world is open to them. Not a closed world. It's a world of possibility," she told me.

Success won't come easily. But Ms. Alsop's power to rouse both young and old, with stirring words as well as beautiful music, gives one reason for hope.

"There will be great peaks and great valleys, as there are in life, but we're all enormously conscious of that. We're in it for the long haul. We're already in love with these kids. It makes such a difference in our lives," she said.

Sport, too, has its leaders, men who see beyond the game and who speak of their lives in words of great resonance.

After breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, the Orioles' Cal Ripken said: "Whether your name is Gehrig or DiMaggio or Robinson or that of some youngster who picks up his bat or puts on his glove, you are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best day in and day out. That's all I've ever tried to do."

Mr. Ripken put words to a career. As did Sen. John McCain when he conceded the election to Mr. Obama: "I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America ... "

These words, faintly echoing FDR, left many to wonder why he hadn't trusted words enough to speak this way during the campaign.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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