Combine a major public policy speech and history, and you have fertile ground for Obamateurisms. Yesterday’s address about immigration was no exception. Barack Obama not only managed to screw up a poem that has been an American gem for over 130 years, he also mangled the history of the Statue of Liberty — and inadvertently snubbed the French as a result.
First, the speech:
It was at this time that a young woman named Emma Lazarus, whose own family fled persecution from Europe generations earlier, took up the cause of these new immigrants. Although she was a poet, she spent much of her time advocating for better health care and housing for the newcomers. And inspired by what she saw and heard, she wrote down her thoughts and donated a piece of work to help pay for the construction of a new statue — the Statue of Liberty — which actually was funded in part by small donations from people across America.
Years before the statue was built — years before it would be seen by throngs of immigrants craning their necks skyward at the end of long and brutal voyage, years before it would come to symbolize everything that we cherish — she imagined what it could mean. She imagined the sight of a giant statue at the entry point of a great nation -– but unlike the great monuments of the past, this would not signal an empire. Instead, it would signal one’s arrival to a place of opportunity and refuge and freedom.
“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,” she wrote,
A mighty woman with a torch…
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome…
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”…
“Give me your tired, and your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free…
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
New York Magazine notes that Obama couldn’t even bother to quote the poem properly:
But the speech also relied heavily on sentimentality, most of all when Obama closed with the story of Emma Lazarus, and the sonnet she wrote for the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus.” It was a moving finish, despite Obama incorrectly reciting the famous line as “yearning to be free” instead of “yearning to breathe free.”
Jim Hoft also saw that the White House web site had it wrong, too. But even more embarrassing is an American President committing a blatant gaffe on the creation of the Statue of Liberty itself. As OOTD reader Barbara Y realized after hearing the speech, Lazarus didn’t raise funds to build the statue. She raised funds to build the pedestal, on which the US government had balked at spending public money:
“Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 “for the occasion” of an auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. (emphasis Barbara’s) The poem was singled out and printed in the Catalogue of the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition at the National Academy of Design because event organizers hoped it would “awaken to new enthusiasm” those working on behalf of the pedestal.”
The statue itself was a gift from France to the United States on the centennial of our independence, but it was so large that it took longer than anticipated to finish. It took several years of private fundraising to build the pedestal so that Bartholdi’s work could finally be assembled and displayed in full. In fact, it was Joseph Pulitzer who had the most public effort in raising funds, scolding the rich and middle class for not doing more, until he had raised enough money to start the pedestal on what was known then as Bedloe’s Island — and the construction had to stop shortly after it began, until Pulitzer embarked on a second fundraising campaign to get enough money to complete the pedestal.
It would have taken the White House only a couple of minutes to get the poem and the history right. No one in this administration cares enough to do so, it seems.
Got an Obamateurism of the Day? If you see a foul-up by Barack Obama, e-mail it to me at [email protected] with the quote and the link to the Obamateurism. I’ll post the best Obamateurisms on a daily basis, depending on how many I receive. Include a link to your blog, and I’ll give some link love as well. And unlike Slate, I promise to end the feature when Barack Obama leaves office.
Illustrations by Chris Muir of Day by Day. Be sure to read the adventures of Sam, Zed, Damon, and Jan every day!