By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-18-09
Americans love a good speech and particularly a great inaugural address. As Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration, the stakes are particularly high. He is competing with ghosts of eloquent presidents past along with his own high rhetorical standards. He is taking office as the country’s first black president, healing centuries of racism and dehumanization, during a staggering economic crisis, with America bogged down in two difficult wars, with Islamist terrorists still threatening, and amid serious concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons
Facing such troubles, it would seem that mere words can do little. But the magic of American democracy – and part of the alchemy of leadership – is that the right words and even the right gesture can make history. The inaugural address debuts the president’s Bully Pulpit, with hundreds of millions not just listening, but yearning for direction, especially today.
Back in April 30, 1789, a visibly nervous George Washington delivered the country’s first inaugural address. The great man’s humility – his awkward gestures and trembling hands — moved the crowd. Many rejoiced that they had witnessed virtue personified, with individual and national greatness reinforcing one another.
Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive period. He made the moment with words not deeds. Jefferson’s patriotic pronouncement “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing, reassuring the losing Federalists that they remained Americans.
These two founders paved the way for a rich history of tone-setting inaugural moments. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried uniting the country by rhapsodizing about the “mystic chords of memory” binding Americans. Even though the effort failed and a bloody Civil War ensued, four years later, Lincoln welcomed back Southern rebels “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”
In 1933, facing horrific economic conditions, Franklin Roosevelt did three important things Obama should note. First, he reassured Americans, famously saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Next, he reoriented Americans away from materialism and excessive individualism back toward core and communal values, saying: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Finally, and practically, Roosevelt reaffirmed faith in the Constitution as enduring but flexible, suited to meet any emergency.
More recently, in 1961, John Kennedy defined the idealism of a generation by saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And twenty years later, Ronald Reagan rejected Kennedy’s liberalism, launching the age of budget cutting and skepticism about government, saying: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
As Barack Obama speaks on Tuesday, he will repudiate Reagan’s skepticism and resurrect Kennedy’s idealism, endorse Roosevelt’s flexibility and display Lincoln’s humanity, echo Jefferson’s call for unity, and hope, amid all these grandiose aspirations, to channel Washington’s humility. A tall order, indeed. Then again, whoever expected Barack Hussein Obama to be elected?