Second Inaugural Special: Barack Obama

Published: PolicyMic (January 21, 2013)

Second Inaugural Special: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush”

Published: PolicyMic (January 20, 2013)

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Bill Clinton (January 20, 1997) and George W. Bush (January 20, 2005)

1) Clinton (1997)

When Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, he did so over a nation experiencing unprecedented economic growth and that remained unchallenged as the world’s sole standing superpower. In light of his successes, Clinton had the rare opportunity to reflect not merely on the circumstances of the present, but how they could be framed in the context of America’s past and future. With character gusto, Clinton availed himself fully of this chance, as seen in the opening paragraphs of his second inaugural address.

At this last presidential inauguration of the 20th century, let us lift our eyes toward the challenges that await us in the next century. It is our great good fortune that time and chance have put us not only at the edge of a new century, in a new millennium, but on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs—a moment that will define our course, and our character, for decades to come. We must keep our old democracy forever young. Guided by the ancient vision of a promised land, let us set our sights upon a land of new promise.

The promise of America was born in the 18th century out of the bold conviction that we are all created equal. It was extended and preserved in the 19th century, when our nation spread across the continent, saved the union, and abolished the awful scourge of slavery.

Then, in turmoil and triumph, that promise exploded onto the world stage to make this the American Century.

And what a century it has been. America became the world’s mightiest industrial power; saved the world from tyranny in two world wars and a long cold war; and time and again, reached out across the globe to millions who, like us, longed for the blessings of liberty.

Along the way, Americans produced a great middle class and security in old age; built unrivaled centers of learning and opened public schools to all; split the atom and explored the heavens; invented the computer and the microchip; and deepened the wellspring of justice by making a revolution in civil rights for African Americans and all minorities, and extending the circle of citizenship, opportunity and dignity to women.

Now, for the third time, a new century is upon us, and another time to choose. We began the 19th century with a choice, to spread our nation from coast to coast. We began the 20th century with a choice, to harness the Industrial Revolution to our values of free enterprise, conservation, and human decency. Those choices made all the difference. At the dawn of the 21st century a free people must now choose to shape the forces of the Information Age and the global society, to unleash the limitless potential of all our people, and, yes, to form a more perfect union.

2) Bush (2005)

The first presidential election after the September 11th terrorist attacks, perhaps inevitably, focused on America’s place in the world. Amidst great controversy, George W. Bush cited the threat of terrorism to concentrate greater powers in the executive branch and wage a controversial war against Iraq. As seen below, he justified these measures by claiming they were done on behalf of the cause of liberty throughout the world. In a passage that opened with a swipe at his critics, Bush made it clear that his administration considered itself to be in a great global fight against “outlaw regimes.”

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty—though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”

The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.

And all the allies of the United States can know: we honor your friendship, we rely on your counsel, and we depend on your help. Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom’s enemies. The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies’ defeat.

Second Inaugural Special: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan

Published: PolicyMic (January 20, 2013)

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Richard Nixon (January 20, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (January 20, 1949).

1) Nixon (1973)

Richard Nixon’s second inaugural address marks a somewhat paradoxical convergence of triumph and tragedy. On the one hand, he was celebrating a landslide reelection in which he bested the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, in 49 out of 50 states. Even better, he was in the process of bringing an end to the long-standing Vietnam War, capping off an impressive list of foreign policy achievements topped by his success in opening American relations with China. At the same time, the Watergate break-ins had occurred only seven months earlier. While they had done little to harm his reelection prospects, ominous clouds were already emerging which suggested that the burglary might plunge Nixon’s second term in scandal. Though few could have imagined that Nixon would be forced to resign in disgrace just more than a year-and-a-half down the road, there was an unmistakable irony in hearing Nixon say things like, “I ask your prayers that in the years ahead I may have God’s help in making decisions that are right for America, and I pray for your help so that together we may be worthy of our challenge.”

Of course, given the legacy of his first term, it seems only fair to focus on the part of Nixon’s second inaugural which rightly learned the greater lessons of his achievements.

The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.

Just as we respect the right of each nation to determine its own future, we also recognize the responsibility of each nation to secure its own future.

Just as America’s role is indispensable in preserving the world’s peace, so is each nation’s role indispensable in preserving its own peace. 

2) Reagan (1985)

Just as Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a political era dominated by proactive liberalism, so too did Ronald Reagan initiate our current right-wing period. His second inaugural, naturally, pointed to his landslide reelection over Walter Mondale (Reagan won 49 states and just shy of 60 percent of the popular vote) as a vindication of his bold economic conservatism. Yet perhaps the most notable feature of Reagan’s speech wasn’t that it lauded his own controversial ideas, but rather that he did it without vilifying those who opposed him. Indeed, Reagan recognized – as many conservatives today do not – that democracy not only protected the liberals whose ideas he felt were erroneous, but depended upon them. While many historians claim that Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address provided the most eloquent championing of bipartisanship, I would argue that Reagan beat him by a hair in this passage (one that, appropriately, uses Jefferson’s own story).

Our two-party system has served us well over the years, but never better than in those times of great challenge when we came together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans united in a common cause.

Two of our Founding Fathers, a Boston lawyer named Adams and a Virginia planter named Jefferson, members of that remarkable group who met in Independence Hall and dared to think they could start the world over again, left us an important lesson. They had become political rivals in the Presidential election of 1800. Then years later, when both were retired, and age had softened their anger, they began to speak to each other again through letters. A bond was reestablished between those two who had helped create this government of ours.

In 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, they both died. They died on the same day, within a few hours of each other, and that day was the Fourth of July.

In one of those letters exchanged in the sunset of their lives, Jefferson wrote: “It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless … we rode through the storm with heart and hand.”

Second Inaugural Special: Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson”

Published: PolicyMic (January 19, 2013)

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1965).

Dwight Eisenhower (1957)

The 1956 presidential election marked the centennial anniversary of the Republican Party as a national organization (it had been founded in 1854 but fielded its first presidential candidate in 1856). Although their champion, John C. Fremont, had been defeated by the far inferior James Buchanan in that ’56 election, Eisenhower comfortably won a second term over perennial opponent Adlai Stevenson one hundred years later. Unfortunately, the inaugural address that he used to mark this historic event was disappointingly lackluster. Platitudes on America’s wealth and promise were followed with boilerplate denunciations of Communism and reiteration of classic Cold War internationalism. Perhaps the only noteworthy feature of the address was its unapologetic embrace of the United Nations, a position that’s hard to imagine being advocated by modern presidents even as it was taken for granted half a century ago.

We recognize and accept our own deep involvement in the destiny of men everywhere. We are accordingly pledged to honor, and to strive to fortify, the authority of the United Nations. For in that body rests the best hope of our age for the assertion of that law by which all nations may live in dignity.

And beyond this general resolve, we are called to act a responsible role in the world’s great concerns or conflicts–whether they touch upon the affairs of a vast region, the fate of an island in the Pacific, or the use of a canal in the Middle East. Only in respecting the hopes and cultures of others will we practice the equality of all nations. Only as we show willingness and wisdom in giving counsel in receiving counsel–and in sharing burdens, will we wisely perform the work of peace.

For one truth must rule all we think and all we do. No people can live to itself alone. The unity of all who dwell in freedom is their only sure defense. The economic need of all nations-in mutual dependence–makes isolation an impossibility: not even America’s prosperity could long survive if other nations did not also prosper. No nation can longer be a fortress, lone and strong and safe. And any people, seeking such shelter for themselves, can now build only their own prison.

Lyndon Johnson (1965)

When Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, he did so with a larger percentage of the popular vote than that won by any presidential candidate before, or since. Ironically, though, the proactive and optimistic liberal idealism for which Johnson stumped in that political contest would never reach the heights that it did in 1964 and 1965. During that brief two-year span, Johnson would bring the civil rights movement to its apex with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965; end national-origin immigration quotas with the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965; declare a “War on Poverty with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which among other things created Head Start and the Job Corps; pass the first significant government aid to public education with the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965; authorize Medicare with the Social Security Act of 1965; and pioneer modern environmentalism by establishing a legal definition of “wilderness” and protecting 9.1 million acres of natural land with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

With such a record from the 12 months prior and the 12 months impending, it was understandable that Johnson would be brimming with zest for progressivism. That is evident in passages like this:

In each generation, with toil and tears, we have had to earn our heritage again. If we fail now then we will have forgotten in abundance what we learned in hardship: that democracy rests on faith, that freedom asks more than it gives, and the judgment of God is harshest on those who are most favored.

If we succeed it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but rather because of what we believe.

For we are a nation of believers. Underneath the clamor of building and the rush of our day’s pursuits, we are believers in justice and liberty and in our own union. We believe that every man must some day be free. And we believe in ourselves.

And that is the mistake that our enemies have always made. In my lifetime, in depression and in war they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith that they could not see or that they could not even imagine. And it brought us victory. And it will again.

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say farewell. Is a new world coming? We welcome it, and we will bend it to the hopes Of man.

And to these trusted public servants and to my family, and those close friends of mine who have followed me down a long winding road, and to all the people of this Union and the world, I will repeat today what I said on that sorrowful day in November last year: I will lead and I will do the best I can.

But you, you must look within your own hearts to the old promises and to the old dreams. They will lead you best of all.

For myself, I ask only in the words of an ancient leader: “Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people, that is so great?”

Second Inaugural Special: Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman

Published: PolicyMic (January 19, 2013)

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 20, 1945) and Harry Truman (January 20, 1949).

Roosevelt (1945)

Like Abraham Lincoln 80 years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1945 occurred near the end of one of America’s bloodiest and most pivotal wars. What’s more, just as Lincoln used his inauguration to preach a generous policy toward the post-Civil War South, so too did Roosevelt argue that America should work assertively with other nations to cultivate peace and a sense of global community. While the vision of benign internationalism that he espoused remains controversial to this day, there is little denying that his ideas have managed to profoundly shape the entire world.

And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons—at a fearful cost—and we shall profit by them.

We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.

We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.

We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear. We can gain it only if we proceed with the understanding, the confidence, and the courage which flow from conviction.

Truman (1949)

If ever a president had reason to appreciate the value of re-election, it was Harry Truman. Of all America’s myriad political upsets, none surpass Truman’s unexpected victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. Newly minted by his dramatic and inspiring re-election, Truman used his inaugural address to deliver a stirring denunciation of Communism, and with it, the rationalization that would drive four more decades of Cold War foreign policy.

The American people desire, and are determined to work for, a world in which all nations and all peoples are free to govern themselves as they see fit, and to achieve a decent and satisfying life. Above all else, our people desire, and are determined to work for, peace on earth–a just and lasting peace–based on genuine agreement freely arrived at by equals.

In the pursuit of these aims, the United States and other like-minded nations find themselves directly opposed by a regime with contrary aims and a totally different concept of life.

That regime adheres to a false philosophy which purports to offer freedom, security, and greater opportunity to mankind. Misled by that philosophy, many peoples have sacrificed their liberties only to learn to their sorrow that deceit and mockery, poverty and tyranny, are their reward.

That false philosophy is communism.

Communism is based on the belief that man is so weak and inadequate that he is unable to govern himself, and therefore requires the rule of strong masters.

Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice.

Communism subjects the individual to arrest without lawful cause, punishment without trial, and forced labor as the chattel of the state. It decrees what information he shall receive, what art he shall produce, what leaders he shall follow, and what thoughts he shall think.

Democracy maintains that government is established for the benefit of the individual, and is charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the individual and his freedom in the exercise of those abilities of his.

Communism maintains that social wrongs can be corrected only by violence.

Democracy has proved that social justice can be achieved through peaceful change.

Communism holds that the world is so widely divided into opposing classes that war is inevitable.

Democracy holds that free nations can settle differences justly and maintain a lasting peace.

These differences between communism and democracy do not concern the United States alone. People everywhere are coming to realize that what is involved is material well-being, human dignity, and the right to believe in and worship God.

Second Inaugural Special: Franklin Roosevelt

Published: PolicyMic (January 17, 2013)

This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 20, 1937) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 20, 1941)

Roosevelt (1937)

While Lincoln’s second inaugural may be the greatest of such speeches ever delivered, Roosevelt’s second inaugural gives it a run for its money. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt’s first term oversaw some of the most radical changes ever to occur in American history. In order to fight the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation transformed the relationship between the state and its people, establishing the idea that the government should provide economic security as well as simply protect basic civil liberties. Although these policies had stirred up enormous controversy among conservatives in both parties during the first four years of Roosevelt’s presidency (as they would during the last eight as well), they were resoundingly endorsed by the American people in the presidential election of 1936, in which more than three-fifths of the voting public cast their ballots for Roosevelt, winning him every state except Maine and Vermont. This historic occasion was more than sufficient cause for Roosevelt to brag during his second inaugural, which, in a distinctly un-Lincolnesque manner, he did. At the same time, he also laid out the logic behind his unprecedented actions in language that liberals would continue to use for generations to come. Instead of running away from the Constitution, he placed progressive economic values as being firmly within the spirit of the founders’ intent:

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Constitutional Convention which made us a nation. At that Convention our forefathers found the way out of the chaos which followed the Revolutionary War; they created a strong government with powers of united action sufficient then and now to solve problems utterly beyond individual or local solution. A century and a half ago they established the Federal Government in order to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the American people.

Today we invoke those same powers of government to achieve the same objectives.

Four years of new experience have not belied our historic instinct. They hold out the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate States, and government of the United States can do the things the times require, without yielding its democracy. Our tasks in the last four years did not force democracy to take a holiday.

Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good. The essential democracy of our Nation and the safety of our people depend not upon the absence of power, but upon lodging it with those whom the people can change or continue at stated intervals through an honest and free system of elections. The Constitution of 1787 did not make our democracy impotent.

It is also worth noting that Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1937 was the first one to occur on January 20th instead of March 4th — a decision made by Congress and the states with the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment to prevent dangerous lags between administrations.

Roosevelt (1941)

On November 5, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to be elected to a third term in office. Aside from earning this dubious distinction, Roosevelt also returned to power at a time when events in Europe and Asia were making World War Two an inevitability. The zest for governing that Roosevelt had so transparently displayed during the New Deal era was giving way to the weariness that would mark his tenure during one of history’s defining international conflicts. That the president knew he was about to lead his country through a crisis both inevitable and essential was made clear by the opening words of his third inaugural address:

On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States.

In Washington’s day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation.

In Lincoln’s day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within.

In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without.

In spite of this ominous hint about the bloody turn that current events were about to take, Roosevelt was not unaware of the broader ideological foundations upon which he wished to rest his presidential legacy. As this strikingly insightful passage reveals, he had his eye squarely placed on where he stood in the larger story of the history of American democracy.

A nation, like a person, has a body—a body that must be fed and clothed and housed, invigorated and rested, in a manner that measures up to the objectives of our time.

A nation, like a person, has a mind—a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and the needs of its neighbors—all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.

And a nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that something which matters most to its future—which calls forth the most sacred guarding of its present.

It is a thing for which we find it difficult—even impossible—to hit upon a single, simple word.

And yet we all understand what it is—the spirit—the faith of America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes of those who came from many lands—some of high degree, but mostly plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more freely.

The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Charta.

In the Americas its impact has been irresistible. America has been the New World in all tongues, to all peoples, not because this continent was a new-found land, but because all those who came here believed they could create upon this continent a new life—a life that should be new in freedom.

Its vitality was written into our own Mayflower Compact, into the Declaration of Independence, into the Constitution of the United States, into the Gettysburg Address.

Those who first came here to carry out the longings of their spirit, and the millions who followed, and the stock that sprang from them—all have moved forward constantly and consistently toward an ideal which in itself has gained stature and clarity with each generation.

The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth.

Second Inaugural Special: Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge

Published: PolicyMic (January 16, 2013)

This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

Woodrow Wilson (March 4, 1917) and Calvin Coolidge (March 4, 1925):

Wilson:

Rarely has a president so directly defied the ideological basis of his own reelection than Woodrow Wilson did in 1917. After campaigning on the grounds that he had “kept us out of war” (i.e., the worsening conflict known as World War I), Wilson would use the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram (in which Germany attempted to enlist Mexico against the United States by offering to return territories conquered during the Mexican-American War) as the basis for involving us in that global conflict. A presidency that Wilson had hoped would be defined by domestic issues was instead destined to be cast on the shores of foreign policy.

In his second inaugural, Wilson made it clear that he knew this was about to happen, even foreshadowing his ultimate characterization of the war as “making the world safe for democracy” in sections such as this:

“That all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance; that the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege; that peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power; that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no other powers should be supported by the common thought, purpose or power of the family of nations; that the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples, under rules set up by common agreement and consent, and that, so far as practicable, they should be accessible to all upon equal terms; that national armaments shall be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety; that the community of interest and of power upon which peace must henceforth depend imposes upon each nation the duty of seeing to it that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectually suppressed and prevented.”

While this passage was hardly as stirring or eloquent in its case for what would later be dubbed “Wilsonian internationalism” as some of Wilson’s later oratory, it nevertheless deserves to be appreciated for its larger historical significance. In a speech that rightfully reflected on the transformation wrought by his first term on domestic affairs — much of it good and much of it bad (although Wilson tended to ignore the latter) — it is this section on foreign policy that ultimately makes his second inaugural notable.

Coolidge:

As one reads American political rhetoric from the second quarter of the 20th century, it is hard not to see the growing convergence of the issues from that era with those from our own. Foremost among them was the dispute over whether “economic freedom” best consisted of a state that followed libertarian principles or one that abided by the ideas of progressivism. Then, as now, each side insisted not only that it alone understood those policies which would cultivate prosperity and foster personal liberty, but that its opponents deliberately disregarded these objectives. One can see that in Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address (like Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge had ascended to the presidency due to the death of his predecessor and then been elected to a term of his own), which includes the following passage:

The time is arriving when we can have further tax reduction, when, unless we wish to hamper the people in their right to earn a living, we must have tax reform. The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor. This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful. The verdict of the country has been given on this question. That verdict stands. We shall do well to heed it.

These questions involve moral issues. We need not concern ourselves much about the rights of property if we will faithfully observe the rights of persons. Under our institutions their rights are supreme. It is not property but the right to hold property, both great and small, which our Constitution guarantees. All owners of property are charged with a service. These rights and duties have been revealed, through the conscience of society, to have a divine sanction. The very stability of our society rests upon production and conservation. For individuals or for governments to waste and squander their resources is to deny these rights and disregard these obligations. The result of economic dissipation to a nation is always moral decay.

From the erroneous conflation of progressivism with class warfare to the lucid explanation of why libertarians so emphatically champion the rights of property, Coolidge’s speech in 1925 could easily be transplated into the mouths of any number of Republican politicians today.

Second Inaugural Special: William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt”

Published: PolicyMic (January 14, 2013)

This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama’s second inauguration.

William McKinley (March 4, 1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (March 4, 1905)

McKinley:

William McKinley White House

The presidential election of 1900 had been a clear-cut referendum on the question of whether America should pursue an imperialist foreign policy. After entering the United States into the Spanish-American War and thereby conquering new territories across the globe, President William McKinley had fundamentally altered our nation’s relationship with the rest of the world. Gone were the days when Americans took pride in their steadfast adherence to George Washington’s axiom about avoiding “foreign entanglements.” Instead it was up to the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, to denounce McKinley’s conquests of Cuba and the Philippines. Although Bryan lost, the campaign was at least able to force McKinley to grossly distort his foreign policy record during his second inaugural:

Four years ago we stood on the brink of war without the people knowing it and without any preparation or effort at preparation for the impending peril. I did all that in honor could be done to avert the war, but without avail. It became inevitable; and the Congress at its first regular session, without party division, provided money in anticipation of the crisis and in preparation to meet it. It came. The result was signally favorable to American arms and in the highest degree honorable to the Government. It imposed upon us obligations from which we cannot escape and from which it would be dishonorable to seek escape. We are now at peace with the world, and it is my fervent prayer that if differences arise between us and other powers they may be settled by peaceful arbitration and that hereafter we may be spared the horrors of war.

If nothing else, McKinley’s second inaugural reminds us that … for all of the great changes wrought in the world between 1901 and 2013 … the language of political dishonesty has remained remarkably constant.

Roosevelt:

Theodore Roosevelt White House

Theodore Roosevelt’s re-election was notable in several ways. Although he was the fifth vice president to take over the presidency due to the death of his predecessor, he was the first to be elected to a term of his own. More importantly, he had spent the three years prior to the 1904 election launching the Progressive Era and thereby transforming the relationship between the federal government and the American people, from breaking up corporate trusts and conserving millions of acres of wilderness to advocating economic regulation and protecting labor rights. In light of this impressive record and Roosevelt’s own reputation for oratorical bombast, one might have expected his inaugural address to be colorful and inspiring. Instead it lands with a thud, as foreshadowed by its painfully platitudinous introduction:

My fellow-citizens, no people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of Good who has blessed us with the conditions which have enabled us to achieve so large a measure of well-being and of happiness. To us as a people it has been granted to lay the foundations of our national life in a new continent. We are the heirs of the ages, and yet we have had to pay few of the penalties which in old countries are exacted by the dead hand of a bygone civilization. We have not been obliged to fight for our existence against any alien race; and yet our life has called for the vigor and effort without which the manlier and hardier virtues wither away. Under such conditions it would be our own fault if we failed; and the success which we have had in the past, the success which we confidently believe the future will bring, should cause in us no feeling of vainglory, but rather a deep and abiding realization of all which life has offered us; a full acknowledgment of the responsibility which is ours; and a fixed determination to show that under a free government a mighty people can thrive best, alike as regards the things of the body and the things of the soul.

While far from the worse inaugural address ever delivered, Roosevelt’s is certainly the most disappointing.