Exactly 72 Years Ago...
A friend notes that March 4, 2005, the day on which this is
written, is exactly 72 years to the day later than the day on
which Franklin Roosevelt took office as president and assured
Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Exactly 72 years before that, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of
office and appealed to "the mystic chords of memory."
Seventy-two years before that, George Washington took the oath
of office as the new nation's first president.
Lincoln began his address at Gettysburg with the words, "Four
score and seven years ago" -- a reminder that the span of
time between the great battle and the Declaration of Independence
was not much more than the biblical lifespan of "three score
and ten." We stand today one lifetime away from Franklin
Roosevelt, two lifetimes from Abraham Lincoln, only three lifetimes
away from George Washington.
1933, 1861 and 1789 were all turning points, moments when men
mattered. Men of piercing intelligence and farsighted men of extraordinary
and unusual character. Washington was a leader who knew he was
setting precedents for a republic that he believed would some
day be continental in extent; he purposively kept himself remote
from his contemporaries and strove to control his raging temper.
He unleashed the talents of the young Alexander Hamilton, whose
Federalist papers had done so much to secure the ratification
of the Constitution, to shape a strong and fiscally reliable federal
government. But he alone had the prestige to hold the new republic
together when it was split by partisans on either side of what
was then a world war between monarchist Britain and revolutionary
Lincoln came to office facing the dissolution of the nation Washington
had welded together a lifetime before. Little known to his fellow
citizens, condescended to by his Cabinet, he pursued a zigzag
course through military failure to success, from a promise to
honor the laws that upheld slavery to the proclamation that slavery
was no more, from savage battle to "malice toward none and
charity to all."
Another president might have left the Confederacy go -- Lincoln's
predecessor thought he couldn't do anything else -- or might have
compromised and readmitted the Southern states with slavery intact.
Lincoln ensured that the promises made in the Declaration a lifetime
before would be kept, if not fully in his lifespan then some day
in a reunited United States.
In the lifetime between Lincoln's first inauguration and Roosevelt's,
the nation grew into an industrial giant -- swelled with immigrants
as no nation had ever been -- and into potentially the greatest
military power on earth. But when Roosevelt took office, the economy
was in a deathly downward spiral and demands for radical change
were in the air.
Roosevelt's economic policies, aimed at freezing the economy
in place, have been faulted for prolonging the depression and
choking off economic growth. But critics should also credit him
for what he didn't do. Roosevelt could have nationalized the banks
in 1933; instead, he insured their depositors. He could have nationalized
industries, as Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I. Instead,
he regulated them, imposed unions on their managements and worked
cooperatively with their executives in building the war industries
into the arsenal of democracy that won World War II. In the process,
the United States became the world's greatest military power,
with responsibilities it has been grappling with ever since.
It seems unlikely that George W. Bush will be a giant in history
like the presidents inaugurated 72, 144 and 216 years before.
The threats to the nation are not as great. Yet his presidency
may come to be seen as another turning point, and one in which
the president's character, and the choices he need not have made
but did make, could shape the nation for a lifetime to come.
Bush, as Yale's John Lewis Gaddis has noted, has transformed
American foreign policy more than any president since Roosevelt
and has decided to wield America's power proactively to advance
liberty and democracy around the world. The recent advances toward
democracy in the Middle East suggest he is on the side of history.
Bush is also working to transform government from the industrial
era programs of Roosevelt's day to post-industrial era programs
and has had some successes -- but how much is still uncertain.
There will be turns in the road ahead, but Bush seems to be setting
America on a course that was not inevitable and which could shape
the nation for a lifetime to come.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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