|Taking the official oath today in the White House from Chief Justice Roberts.|
Don’t be dazzled by all of the hoopla in Washington tomorrow. Despite the pomp and pageantry it’s all for show—a mummery. January 20 is by law Inauguration Day since the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment which moved the date from March 4 as originally set forth in the Constitution.
By tradition in order to avoid offending preachers who used to vigorously defend the sacredness of the Sabbath with all the zeal of people who suspect their livelihoods would be at risk if folks were allowed to do anything but sit and listen to them, public ceremonies were delayed to a Monday when the 20th fell on Sunday.
In compliance with the law, Barack Obama and Joe Biden officially, but quietly, began their second terms as President and Vice President by taking the oath of office today in the White House. Then tomorrow on the steps of the Capital in front a crowd of hundreds of thousands with millions around the world watching on television or via the internet, they will do it all over again amid all of the splendor that republican (small “r”) simplicity allows.
Having the big party on the 21st has a lot of significance for the nation’s first African-American President—it falls on the Federal Holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The spirit of Dr. King was also invoked four years ago for the President’s first inaugural at ceremonies far grander than those tomorrow—first inaugurals are always bigger deals than the second.
America was at first a little unsure of how to proceed with inaugurations. Should it be accompanied with all of the high ritual and drama of a coronation or did republican virtue dictate a simple, business-like procedure not much more elaborate than installing a village mayor? This was made even more complicated in that George Washington, hero of the Revolution, was the virtually unanimously—actually unanimously in the new Electoral College—choice of most citizens and already viewed as almost a demi-god. In fact a lot of folks thought he should be king or at least President for Life.
Washington had no aspirations to either kingship or a life-time job. But he didn’t mind an expression of affection. He arrived on Manhattan in a specially decorated barge and was met by all of the dignitaries of the city, members of the new Congress, his brother officers from the Continental Army, and a good portion of the citizenry of New York. He mounted a splendid charger and was escorted through the city by cavalrymen in gleaming helmets through wildly cheering crowds to his residence on Cherry Street.
A few days later, on April 30, 1798 he was driven by a liveried driver and footmen to the temporary Capital at Federal Hall where he was first introduced to the members of Congress by his Vice President, John Adams, who had been sworn in a few days earlier. After a while Adams suggested it was time to take the oath of office. The principles moved to the balcony of the Hall. Washington was wearing a good new brown suite of American manufacture, but not full formal attire since it was not evening. He also wore a sword, as befitting a former General officer. He was sworn in by the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert Livingston with his hand on an open Bible borrowed at the last minute from the local Masonic Temple. After finishing the oath Livingston proclaimed, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” to wild cheering. A local company of artillery fired a thirteen gun salute, one for each of the colonies.
The new President returned to the waiting combined houses of Congress and delivered a brief address. In about 1,400 words the President was modest and deferential, promising to do his best to be worthy of the trust placed in him. And that was it. There was neither a Ball nor even a levee at his residence to greet well-wishers.
Two years later in the second temporary capital at Philadelphia the ceremony was even more Spartan.
John Adams was the first President to be inaugurated in the new Capital, Washington, D.C. It was a raw, muddy place more like a frontier town than a great city. Adams was about to move into the unfinished White House which decidedly did not meet with his approval. He was obsessed with being handed all of the honors bestowed on Washington and then some. He was mocked for wearing a sword despite never serving in the army and had bickered with Congress on how he should be addressed. Unlike Washington he was not a unanimous choice. His old friend and now bitter political rival Thomas Jefferson had challenged him for the office and won many votes. Now, under the Constitution as it stood then, Jefferson was suddenly his Vice President.
Four years later, Adams was out and Jefferson was in via the Revolution of 1800. The bitter Adams spent his last days in office signing commissions for putting Federalists in all open judgeships and then slipping out of town the night before the inauguration, making him the only sitting President to boycott his successor’s instillation. For his part Jefferson in a rebuke to Adams’s supposedly aristocratic ways simply walked to the Capital from his boarding house to take the oath. Notoriously shy in public and a bad speaker, Jefferson mumbled his way through an address that no one beyond the first row of the House could hear. Fortunately, Jefferson was a fine writer and his speech was widely printed. It is now regarded as the first great inaugural address. He struck a conciliatory note after the bruising and highly partisan election:
But 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.
Speaking of inaugural addresses, there have been a lot of them—most of them completely unmemorable. William Henry Harrison insisted on giving a droning two hour oration hatless in a pouring freezing rain—and promptly died of the pneumonia he contracted.
But there have been stand-outs. Unsurprisingly Abraham Lincoln crafted two memorable speeches which he delivered in a high, twangy voice that had an astonishing capacity to carry to even very large crowds. His Second Inaugural is considered one of the great orations of American history ending:
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.
In 1933 at the last inauguration held on March 4, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said:
…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.
And, of course, John F. Kennedy transfixed and inspired a generation when he said:
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 so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
Barak Obama came to the Capital steps four years ago enjoying a reputation as perhaps the most gifted orator to become president since Lincoln himself. He took office at a moment of national crisis with the economy still in free fall from the collapse of the banking industry and the nation in seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition there was the enormous symbolic importance of being the first Black man to take the oath. At the time, his speech was widely praised. But four years later it is hard to recall a single phrase.
He has another chance tomorrow.