The first Inaugural Address of my lifetime was Dwight Eisenhower's second, in 1957; I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it, inasmuch as I had just turned three a couple of months beforehand and I had only the vaguest sense of the military-industrial complex. (My parents were military, so I suppose I was part of it.) Now that Barack Obama has delivered his Inaugural Address, I thought I'd go back through a lifetime of January perorations and single out phrases or paragraphs that resound to me, here in my fifty-sixth year. I begin, of course, with Eisenhower, 1957:

We do not fear this world of change. America is no stranger to much of its spirit. Everywhere we see the seeds of the same growth that America itself has known. The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, and opportunity. And the American story of material progress has helped excite the longing of all needy peoples for some satisfaction of their human wants. These hopes that we have helped to inspire, we can help to fulfill.

It may seem surprising that Ike would mention "material progress," a concept you might think would be too mundane for such an august moment, but the General knew what he was talking about: the "needy peoples" might have envied our liberty, but mostly, they envied our standard of living.

To John F. Kennedy, 1961:

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.

That last sentence is constantly being quoted, but it needs that preceding paragraph to put it into its proper context: it wasn't so much a call to arms as it was a rededication of purpose, a purpose that might have been forgotten over the years.

Next, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965:

I do not believe that the Great Society is the ordered, changeless, and sterile battalion of the ants. It is the excitement of becoming — always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again — but always trying and always gaining.

In each generation, with toil and tears, we have had to earn our heritage again.

If we fail now, we shall have forgotten in abundance what we learned in hardship: that democracy rests on faith, that freedom asks more than it gives, and that the judgment of God is harshest on those who are most favored.

The bitterest irony, it seems, is that LBJ's "Great Society," far from the expansive effort he might have desired, wound up being a mundane social-services net, ordered, changeless, though a long way from sterile.

Richard M. Nixon, 1969:

I do not offer a life of uninspiring ease. I do not call for a life of grim sacrifice. I ask you to join in a high adventure — one as rich as humanity itself, and as exciting as the times we live in.

The essence of freedom is that each of us shares in the shaping of his own destiny.

For Nixon, one of the most prosaic of men, this borders on poetry.

But then in 1973:

Above all else, the time has come for us to renew our faith in ourselves and in America.

In recent years, that faith has been challenged.

Our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country, ashamed of their parents, ashamed of America's record at home and of its role in the world.

It's always seemed to me that Nixon actually seemed pained to say that; perhaps it was in the original copy, subsequently blue-penciled away, and then reinstated at the last moment after a perusal of the morning papers that day. At the time, some probably thought he was making it all up.

Jimmy Carter, 1977:

Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our Nation, for we know that if we despise our own government we have no future. We recall in special times when we have stood briefly, but magnificently, united. In those times no prize was beyond our grasp.

But we cannot dwell upon remembered glory. We cannot afford to drift. We reject the prospect of failure or mediocrity or an inferior quality of life for any person. Our Government must at the same time be both competent and compassionate.

What Carter did not comprehend at the time was that the basic principle of the nation was distrust of government, and always had been. He may have seen himself as the cleaner of the Nixon/Ford stables; in the end, he was just a man in a sweater with a shovel, a man who was earnest in his beliefs even as the basis for them was crumbling.

Ronald Reagan, 1981:

It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.

Yes, that was 1981. Any similarity to any other calendar year is almost frighteningly accurate.

Ronald Reagan, 1985:

History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us. We stand together again at the steps of this symbol of our democracy — or we would have been standing at the steps if it hadn't gotten so cold. Now we are standing inside this symbol of our democracy. Now we hear again the echoes of our past: a general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air.

It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That's our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound — sound in unity, affection, and love — one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.

Yeah, there was some business about a missile shield in there; but this is closer to the spirit of the Reagan I remember, the spirit the Republicans have had such a difficult time trying to reincarnate.

George Bush, 1989:

A President is neither prince nor pope, and I don't seek a window on men's souls. In fact, I yearn for a greater tolerance, an easy-goingness about each other's attitudes and way of life.

If only. Twenty years later, the window has not only been sought, it's damn near been mandated. George never saw it coming.

Bill Clinton, 1993:

This beautiful capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.

Americans deserve better, and in this city today, there are people who want to do better. And so I say to all of us here, let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people. Let us put aside personal advantage so that we can feel the pain and see the promise of America.

You can argue, I suppose, that nobody manuevered for position as efficiently as Bill Clinton, but give him credit for realizing that feeling the pain and seeing the promise inevitably fit into the same continuum, even if "I feel your pain" did briefly become a national punchline.

Clinton redux, 1997:

Prosperity and power — yes, they are important, and we must maintain them. But let us never forget: The greatest progress we have made, and the greatest progress we have yet to make, is in the human heart. In the end, all the world's wealth and a thousand armies are no match for the strength and decency of the human spirit.

As Reaganesque as any twentieth-century Democrat would ever get, and I'm just cynical enough to think that Clinton really believed this.

George W. Bush, 2001:

Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom.

Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone.

There was, of course, one great difference between W. and Mother Teresa: she looked outward for her counsel, while he was, and is, far more insular by nature. Still, if anyone knows from "unhonored acts of decency," it's George W. Bush.

Bush revisited, 2005:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

It never occurred to him, poor fellow, that some people might prefer to be slaves, so long as someone is picking up the tab for their health care.

Barack Obama, 2009:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Much has been made of that seemingly-throwaway line about "non-believers" — me, I just think he was trying to be inclusive — but the real meat of the paragraph is that bit about the "lines of tribe." I think he's probably wrong about their eventual dissolution; just the same, I hope he's right and I'm wrong.

All texts quoted above from Bartleby.com.

The Vent

#615
  1 February
2009

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