While the 44th president of the United States was being sworn in, I was cleaning the kitchen sink and while he was making his first speech in office, I was making bread. To me these do not seem inappropriate tasks, for one of the strongest themes of his speech was the need to clear up the mess left behind by those who went before him, and to provide a wholesome future for those who will come after.
Like so many others, I have been deeply moved by Barak Obama’s campaign and by his glorious speech-making. It is such a delight to have an incumbent in the White House who is sensitive to language. Not everyone seems to agree with me, however. Immediately after the speech, cynical emails were arriving in the BBC newsroom, maintaining that words are easy to produce, but deeds are what count. Speaking as a writer, I would like to call into question this old cliché, for the truth is that words are deeds.
When in 2001, President Bush called for a ‘crusade’ in response to the destruction of the New York World Trade Centre, oblivious to the associations this word had for the muslim world, that was undoubtedly a deed, and an incredibly stupid one, for in showing such a lack of sensitivity to another culture he gave ammunition to America’s enemies and alienated some who might otherwise have been won over to moderation.
When seven years later, Barak Obama summed up the essence of his message in that now familiar three word slogan, ‘Yes we can’, that too was a deed, for it articulated the buried hope, not just of the United States of America but of people of goodwill all over the world.
The business of politics, like the art of fiction is conducted through words but, unlike an author, an inarticulate politician has the power to ruin lives. Thank goodness, therefore, that the man who has produced so many bad lines for the last nine years has finally departed . And three cheers for the new wordsmith. He’s got a difficult narrative to construct but if anyone can do it, I believe he can.