On January 20, Timeless Words That Echo From the Past
In official Washington, today isn’t really much of a holiday, as our two dominant political parties gear up for Tuesday’s action in the U.S. Senate, where the impeachment trial of President Trump gets real.
A year from today, however, Donald Trump will be taking the oath of office for the second time. Or, instead, his replacement will be inaugurated for the first time -- unless, I suppose, Mike Pence has ascended to the office in the meantime. Who knows what the fates have in store for us? But on this date, it's perhaps best to look back rather than ahead. The 20th of January, after all, is when when presidents have relied on their oratorical skills (and their speechwriters’ eloquence) to try and unite Americans, at least for a while. Some have succeeded in this quest more than others.
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The first president to give a Jan. 20 inaugural address was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also the last president to take the oath of office on March 4. The tradition was changed during his first term, partly because of how poorly Roosevelt handled his first transition, and so on Jan. 20, 1937, FDR spoke to an American public still in the throes of the Great Depression.
“Let us ask again,” he said that day. “Have we reached the goal of our vision of that fourth day of March 1933? Have we found our happy valley?”
Most Americans had not reached a happy place in 1937, but four years later, President Roosevelt’s third inauguration took place amid an even more frightening crucible: world war.
“Democracy is not dying,” FDR assured his fellow Americans on this date in 1941. “We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.”
John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address was so remarkable that the temptation is to reprint the entire thing. Long-playing records were made of this speech and sold commercially. Millions of schoolchildren memorized parts of it. Here are three of the most evocative passages:
“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.”
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
“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.”
To be sure, there have been some Jan. 20 duds. “I have no new dream to set forth today,” Jimmy Carter proclaimed glumly at his sober inauguration. This was unfortunate, but candid. In 1989, George H.W. Bush spoke of a “new breeze” blowing in the world, an allusion that proved simultaneously forgettable and only marginally accurate.
In fairness, Bush 41 was following a tough act: eight years of Ronald Reagan. At the Gipper’s 1981 inauguration, the Great Communicator lived up to his billing.
“The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades,” Reagan said in heralding a conservative American renaissance. “They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Nineteen years ago today, Reagan's disciple (George Herbert Walker Bush’s son) had his chance at the inaugural lectern. He did not blow it. The speech was judged by prominent liberal journalist Hendrik Hertzberg to be “shockingly good.” It was, Hertzberg added, “by far the best Inaugural Address in 40 years; indeed, it was better than all but a tiny handful of all the inaugurals of all the presidents since the Republic was founded.”
This was more than generous praise from across the aisle: Hertzberg helped draft Jimmy Carter’s 1977 address. Bush’s speech started off with a tip of the hat to his predecessor, and to Al Gore, the man he had only kinda sorta defeated in the 2000 election, “for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.”
“We have a place, all of us, in a long story -- a story we continue, but whose end we will not see,” Bush continued. “It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.
“It is the American story -- a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.”
Three years ago today, Donald John Trump delivered a different kind of inaugural address. It was highly unorthodox in the sense that it was really a continuation of his campaign stump speech. Many of the most prominent members in the audience, including George W. Bush himself, found it discordant.
“Well,” Bush told Hillary Clinton when it was over, “that was some weird shit.”
Now, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: We are met on the great battlefield of American politics, the U.S. Senate, testing whether a speech so conceived, so dedicated, can long endure -- and whether it might be reprised a year from today.