Sorry to hear Obama talking this way

This may be a small thing, but:

I hate, hate, hate the lazy modern presidential habit of ending all major addresses with the phrase "And God bless the United States of America" or simply "God bless America."

I love the Irving Berlin song. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. But a little chunk is hacked away from the national brain each time a president gets out of a speech not with a thought or original phrase but with this mindless pablum. This has become the political equivalent of "Have a nice day!"

Isn't this how presidents have always talked? God, no. You didn't get it from George Washington. You didn't get it from Abraham Lincoln, either in the hands-down winner as Greatest Inaugural Address Ever, his second or in that work of political haiku, Gettysburg Address. You didn't hear it from FDR.

Many of these titans spoke of God -- but when they did so, it was with some actual thought-content. For instance, from the close of Lincoln's Second Inaugural:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in...

As I know first-hand, you didn't hear this from probably the most sincerely religious president of recent times, Jimmy Carter. To choose an example of a speech I was not involved in, his "crisis of confidence" speech in the summer of 1979 -- often called the "malaise" speech, though he did not use that word -- touched on spiritual issues but ended this way:

I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.

But then Ronald Reagan began using the phrase to mean "The speech is over now," and ever since then politicians have seemed afraid not to tack it on, perhaps out of fear that we'll have the aural equivalent of phantom-limb pain if we don't hear the familiar words.

Apparently Obama began sliding down this slope early last year, but in most of the speeches I heard he ended with a composed thought, not a cliche. (I must not have listened all the way to the end of his otherwise-perfect election night speech in Grant Park.) But just now, groan, he ended his economic-stimulus speech, at George Mason University, in this same lame way. Can there be hope for the inaugural?

You are better than this, Mr. President-Elect. Your speechwriter, though more wizened than some who have held the job, presumably still has the vim to come up with a good closing line -- even one involving God. For example, this from John Kennedy's inaugural, six months before Obama was born:

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

All I have left to say is... nah, to hell with further thought. God Bless America

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In