Kunin: Words Matter

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is a former Vermont governor who
hopes that President Obama’s recent inaugural address will inspire
Americans to keep working toward a better future for all. 

They say speeches don’t create change. They are wrong. Abraham Lincoln
and Martin Luther King knew that words matter. They changed the course
of a nation. They inspired us to act, to end slavery, to fulfill our

And just when we thought that we were incapable of
action, and skeptical of dreams, Barack Obama’s inaugural address
aroused us from our stupor, lifted up a nation that had been downcast,
and reminded us to look up at the one sky above us. "We are made for
this moment, and we will seize it," he told the millions who focused on
every word.

If Martin Luther King were alive to celebrate his
birthday, he could not have dreamed of a re-elected African-American
President calling us to complete the journey that King had begun. "We
the people" no longer means what it once did – when this nation was
founded by a select cadre of white male landholders.

Obama sang his words when he re-defined who we, the American people, are today.

the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of
us are created equal – is the star that guides us still, just as it
guided our forebears; through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."

were the turning points for women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay and
lesbian rights. At the time, each milestone was fiercely contested with
cruel rhetoric and physical violence; but having extended citizenship
to women, African-Americans, and gay and lesbian Americans is making us a
better nation.

Again and again the President reminded us that "our journey is not complete."

for one moment did he shy away from controversy; he declared, "We will
respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so
would betray our children and future generations."

Many observers
pronounced it a liberal speech. I saw it differently. I did not see it
as either liberal or conservative. To me it was a speech that reflected
the best of American values, originally written down by the founding
fathers, and reframed for our time to be inclusive, to embrace every

Had the old definition of "we the people" prevailed,
would we have a Supreme Court Justice named Sonia Sotomayor swearing in
the Vice President? Would we have an openly gay inaugural poet, named
Richard Blanco?

I suspect not.

Most certainly, we would not have just re-elected an African-American President.

are a stronger, more egalitarian nation because of Seneca Falls, Selma
and Stonewall; but, as Obama reminded us, the journey is not complete.
It is we, the people, who must exercise our rights as citizens of this
great democracy, to continue to move forward. Thank you, Mr. President,
for showing us the way.

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