Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

Every four years, January 20, is a date of tremendous consequence to the American people. It is of course the date set aside after an election, for the inauguration of the president. It is of even more consequence on days such as today, when a new president of a different party takes the oath of office on the steps of US Capitol in Washington DC as it represents the peaceful transition of power, something we take for granted in this country, but shouldn't.

The first such peaceful transition of executive power from one party to another in the United States took place on March 4, (the date originally stipulated by the Constitution to be inauguration day), 1801. During the 1800 election, the Republican (in essence, today's Democratic Party) Thomas Jefferson, defeated Federalist John Adams in what many accounts tell us, was an even more contentious election than the one we just experienced.

In his inaugural address, Jefferson's first job was to heal a nation torn apart. while confirming his own convictions. In doing so, he defined the very essence of our democratic republic.  In that, his first of two inaugural addresses, Jefferson said this:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions... 
...every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. 
...Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.  
It's easy for us to forget today that the survival of the nation was very much in doubt in Jefferson's time, and those words, along with practically everything else the man ever said or wrote, went a long way to forge the bonds that tie this nation together to this day.

A new president, whomever that person should be, would do well to keep in mind the life and times of this nation, and the struggles of his (and eventually her) predecessors to create and sustain it.

You might think a good place to start one's study of the history of the presidency of the United States would be to look through the inaugural addresses of the presidents. One president, James Garfield, did just that before he took his oath of office on March 4, 1881. I have no idea if anyone knows for certain if our 20th president felt that was time well spent, but the general consensus of most historians is that the majority of presidents' first speeches to the nation are imminently forgettable. President Garfield probably could have done himself a favor by looking elsewhere for inspiration as despite addressing a few noble causes, his own inaugural address, does not rate very well. even among the generally low company it keeps.

Of course there are exceptions, addresses delivered to the nation by extraordinary men in extraordinary times, which constitute some of the most profound utterances in American history.

If I were about to become president, (something the entire nation and world should be deliriously happy will never happen), one of the things I would do to prepare myself before my inaugural address, would be to do something I've done quite often, take a stroll through our nation's capital. In the footsteps of every president who governed from there (with the ironic exception of the man for whom the city is named), inspiration to find the appropriate first words to the nation should be easy to find.

I'd start at perhaps the loveliest monument in town, at least from a distance, the Jefferson Memorial. There you can find inscribed many of the great man's words inscribed inside the Roman inspired temple designed by John Russell Pope. Unfortunately many of those words are taken out of context and made to fit in with the spirit of the time the monument was built. A better place to study the actual words of Jefferson would be a couple miles away at the Library of Congress. On our third president, our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, while addressing an assembly of Nobel Prize winners said this:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. 
Jefferson's first inaugural address is on the short list of most historians' best of the best presidential inaugural addresses list. Here you can read the speech in its entirety.

Across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Monument, sits the new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a lovely park setting. This monument, designed by the esteemed landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin, true to the didactic nature of our modern national monuments, depicts many of the enormous historic events that took place during Roosevelt's presidency. I wrote in depth about the monument here.

One of the most famous catch phrases of any presidential speech, comes at the beginning of FDR's first inaugural address when he told a struggling nation well into the grips of the Great Depression on March 4, 1933 :
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
The whole truth be told, I've heard rumors that the "fear itself" line was lifted by Roosevelt's speechwriter from a newspaper ad. Nonetheless, FDR's first inaugural went along way to lift the spirit, if not necessarily the pocketbooks, of this nation's citizens.

Here is a recording of entire address:

Not too far from the Roosevelt memorial is a collection of the most enduring and powerful monuments to the American experience to be found anywhere. First you come upon two fairly recent war memorials, devoted to the Korean and Vietnam Wars. You can read about them here. Steps from there is the memorial to perhaps our greatest president (depending upon  the geographical region in which you were born), Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial, designed by Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922,, is our nation's most recognizable, and thought provoking monument. More than a monument, the building has served as the setting for some of the most important gatherings of citizens since its nearly 100 years of existence. As such the building, and its environs, are for Americans, hallowed ground, the de facto hearth of our democracy.

A testimony to its enduring legacy, you will find four words chiseled into the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, that have nothing, yet everything to do with the 16th president. Those words are "I HAVE A DREAM." Those words refer to a moment in time, not an inaugural address, to a man, not a US president, and to a people, not the whole citizenry of the United States, but a group of people for whom the guarantees, privileges and promises of the US Constitution did not apply. It was from those steps that Martin Luther King demanded that the "promissory note" signed by the Founding Fathers in the form of the US Constitution be cashed in, exactly 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Inside the memorial is Daniel Chester French's iconic statue of the seated Lincoln. Flanking him on either side are the texts of two of his greatest speeches. To Lincoln's right, on the south wall of the monument is inscribed his Gettysburg Address, to his left, the text of probably the greatest inaugural address ever given, Lincoln's Second Inaugural.

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

The speech was delivered precisely one month and five days before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Rather than gloating on an imminent magnificent victory, Lincoln's speech is one of sorrow and self reflection.  He spoke of suffering and the tremendous price both sides paid for waging war. He spoke of God's judgement on the American people, not just the Confederates, a result of subjecting one eighth of the entire population of the country to slavery:
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
Despite every indication that the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln resigned himself to the idea that we as a nation were helpless before God's wrath:
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 that in mind Abraham Lincoln closes one of the shortest inaugural addresses in history with these most remarkable words of reconciliation and healing:
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, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Reflecting his desire for reconciliation, Lincoln's Memorial is situated on the banks of the Potomac River which separates the District of Columbia, from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Just across the river atop a hill in Arlington, VA, sits the former home of none other than Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, Lee's property and much of  the surrounding region were occupied by the Union and to spite the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and chief general of the Confederate Sates, the federal government allocated his land to become Arlington National Cemetery. It would later become this country's premier military cemetery.

Today, to  reach Arlington National Cemetery from the Lincoln Memorial one needs only to cross McKim Mead and White's Memorial Bridge, a structure as symbolic as it is beautiful. Entering the cemetery you are confronted by tens of thousands of gravestones making the final resting places of men and women who served in this nation's armed forces. On each stone is carved either a cross, a Star of David, or a star and crescent, symbolizing the creed of the fallen soldier, sailor, airman or marine. Just below Lee's home is the final resting place of John F. Kennedy. The eternal flame marking his grave can be seen across the river from the Lincoln Memorial at night.

Perhaps no inaugural speech was as moving or as inspiring as Kennedy's. The old world order was rapidly changing and Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century, grasped that concept, as well as a deep understanding of where we came from, at the outset of his speech:  
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Kennedy pledged to break the bonds of oppression throughout the world...
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom-and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
...and took the moral high ground:
To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
All the while understanding the risks of all out war in the age of the atom bomb:
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction...
...So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
JFK's inaugural speech, while speaking of the past, continually looked forward:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And instead of making promises, he made demands of selflessness and sacrifice:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Here's a video of the inauguration address of John F. Kennedy:

The remarkable thing about all great speeches is the way they speak to us today, decades or even centuries after they were crafted.

Here's an interesting piece from the online journal Vox, with a video featuring Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and author of the book: Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words.

In the video, Professor Jamieson lists three aspects that make for a great inauguration speech. In that speech, the newly sworn in  president should aim to: Unify the country, share principles (rather than policy), and perhaps most importantly, affirm limitations.

Check, check and check for the speeches listed above.

Then she gives three pieces of advice to the speech givers: Keep it short, forget the campaign, and use the pronoun "we", rather than "I".


It would seem that her comments might be specifically directed at the man about to take the oath of office today. After some truly reprehensible behavior during the campaign, he showed some promise after the election, being conciliatory, and pledging to be the president of all Americans. Sadly he slipped back into his old, bad habits and spent most of his time as president-elect as if he were still on the campaign trail. Today he finds himself in the unenviable position of having a lower approval rate on the eve of his inauguration, than on the day after the election.

Despite the vast number of Americans who pledge to do anything but watch the inauguration today, the new president can do himself a huge favor by taking heed of Professor Jamieson's advice. No one expects him to deliver a speech of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy caliber.

The truth be told, his address today needn't be memorable, in fact, given his nature, and the history of presidential inauguration speeches, it would be far better for him if it were not memorable at all.

The good news for our future president is that he has set the bar remarkably low for himself. All he really has to do today is show a modicum of humility, make at least a token effort to bridge the tremendous chasm he has created between himself, his supporters, and the opposition, and for God's sake let the world know he intends to respect the rule of law and common decency as far as the next four years are concerned.

Now is that too much to ask of the President of the United States?

We've come so far low we cannot possibly accept anything less.

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