Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inauguration Day Retrospective

The first presidential inauguration I remember is Richard Nixon's first one, January 20, 1969. I was in fourth grade at St. Agnes Parish School in Butler, Wisconsin. Barely a year before, I had met then-candidate Nixon, together with his wife, Pat, daughters Tricia and Julie, and future first son-in-law David Eisenhower, at a campaign appearance at Milwaukee's Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel. To this day, Richard Nixon remains the only U.S. President I have met. (This may have something to do with my working for presidential candidates who lose their elections.)

Nixon's inauguration is vivid for me because, for some reason, our class went to the principal's office to watch the ceremony on TV. Just before the big moment, my teacher, Sister Mary Floricita, S.S.N.D., took me aside and asked me to perform for the principal, Sister Mary Grace, by reciting the presidential oath of office. I, of course, obliged.

My first inauguration in Washington was Reagan's first in 1981. I watched the ceremony on television, but walked downtown from Georgetown to see the tail-end of the parade near the White House.

As noted below, I was in South Africa at the time of Reagan's second inaugural, but I do remember watching the parade for George H.W. Bush in 1989. For the first Clinton inaugural, I had to work, but was able to listen to his speech on a television in the office.

I was an accredited correspondent in 1997, covering the Clinton second inaugural for The Metro Herald. I was going to reproduce my report from that event here, but when I re-read it, I realized it was quite insipid. (That's probably because the text accompanied a lot of far more interesting photos.) Instead, I am reproducing an article I wrote that ran just before Inauguration Day. It still has some relevance (particularly given Karl Rove's modeling of the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley). If any reader is inordinately curious about my other article, "The 53rd Presidential Inaugural: Tidbits and Highlights," it can be found here.

This article appeared in the Metro Herald in a special Presidential Inauguration issue in January 1997.

Our Quadrennial American Ritual
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

As a graduate student in England ten years ago, I had the pleasure to watch the parade that preceded (and followed) the State Opening of Parliament in London. Gilded carriages transported Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. People lined the streets between the two strongholds with people, mostly local commoners (the sort you'd meet at a pub like the Queen Vic on the popular soap opera EastEnders) and tourists (largely Americans and Japanese).

Although the gilded carriages and handsome white horses and colorful soldiers garbed in 18th century costumes were fun to look at, in fact little happened in that parade. As it happens, little happens at the State Opening of Parliament itself, except that the Queen delivers a monotonous speech written for her by the Prime Minister's staff to describe the government's program for the coming year. By tradition, the Queen does little more than read the government's words, with no intonation or expression that would betray her own opinions on the issues of the day. After the speech, the Queen rises, leaves, and Parliament recesses until another day when real work gets done.

The meat of the State Opening of Parliament is the tradition and ritual, repeated each year with few changes -- and what changes do come, come at a glacial pace. The purpose of the ritual is to demonstrate continuity with past generations and a commitment to the future. It is a rite of contract as much as anything else. As Thomas Jefferson once put it, "We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country." Rituals like the State Opening of Parliament and the U.S. Presidential Inauguration are contractual ceremonies binding the generations together.

Ritual and ceremony are fundamental human needs and endeavors. West Indian poet Derek Wolcott put it well when he explained that "Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic." As humans, we seek the assurance of tradition, ceremony, and repetition.

When our Republic began more than 200 years ago, the Founders supposed they could rid themselves of the pomp associated with the British monarchy. No parade marked the inauguration until William Henry Harrison took the oath in 1841 -- more than 50 years after George Washington began the tradition of delivering an inaugural address upon swearing to uphold the Constitution. Washington himself almost scuttled that tradition four years later, for in 1793 -- more than 200 years ago! -- he delivered an inaugural address of only 135 words, the shortest in history. Remarkably, Washington at that time promised to uphold his oath and said that he was not so much motivated by fear that he would be punished legally for breaking his word, but that he might be subject to "the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony." He was worried not about punishment, but about social opprobrium and the shame of disappointing his friends and colleagues. If only modern-day politicians were similarly motivated!

As it happens, two years before my trip to England, I was in South Africa doing research at the time of that country's State Opening of Parliament. In Cape Town, I saw a motorcade carrying then-President P. W. Botha to the Parliament Buildings, and some military bands played a few march tunes. My personal reaction to the whole affair was that it was unremittingly boring. In contrast, however, to the Queen's traditionally boring speech, Botha delivered an address that crystallized the crossroads of South Africa's troubled history. He spoke before South Africa's tricameral parliament -- itself a symbol of the country's divisions, as the Parliament had one house for white members, one house of Asians, and one house for people of mixed race (so-called "coloureds"). Blacks were still conspicuously excluded from the political process. Botha's fiery rhetoric that day -- among others -- was typical of the political turmoil that was to dog South Africa even up till now (three years after the first elections under universal suffrage that elected Nelson Mandela to Botha's job as President of South Africa).

My trip to South Africa coincided with Ronald Reagan's second inauguration. Washingtonians will remember that event not for the pomp and ceremony that occurred, but for what didn't occur: Sub-zero, freezing temperatures forced the oath of office ceremony indoors, into the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. (Luckily for me, it was summertime in South Africa.) The annual parade was canceled -- actually, postponed until a later (summer) date in Disney World. Yet, in the absence of ceremony, the business of the American government went on.

As important as parades and balls are, they are ephemeral in comparison to the words spoken at the inaugural ceremony. Presidents, since Washington's time, have used the occasion to set the tone for their administrations and to make specific policy proposals that they intend to persuade Congress to adopt into law. Some of these speeches have risen to the level of fine oratory. Others are wonkish remarks more similar to the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament.

One hundred years ago, President William McKinley gave an inaugural address that contains passages that are as relevant today as they were when he spoke them from the steps on the East Front of the Capitol on March 4, 1897. Noting the country's economic problems, McKinley said:

"Economy is demanded in every branch of the Government at all times. . . . The severest economy must be observed in all public expenditures, and extravagance stopped wherever it is found, and prevented wherever in the future it may be developed. . . . It has been our uniform practice to retire, not increase our outstanding obligations, and this policy must again be resumed and vigorously enforced. . . .

"The Government should not be permitted to run behind or increase its debt in times like the present. Suitably to provide against this is the mandate of duty -- the certain and easy remedy for most of our financial difficulties. A deficiency is inevitable so long as the expenditures of the Government exceed its receipts. It can only be met by loans or an increased revenue. While a large annual surplus of revenue may invite waste and extravagance, inadequate revenue creates distrust and undermines public and private credit. Neither should be encouraged."

And who thought the debate over a balanced budget only emerged in the 1980s?

Interestingly, barely a year after the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal") decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, McKinley thought it important to address the issues of civil rights. It is chilling to think how relevant his words are today:

"The great essential to our happiness and prosperity is that we adhere to the principles upon which the Government was established and insist upon their faithful observance. Equality of rights must prevail, and our laws be always and everywhere respected and obeyed. We may have failed in the discharge of our full duty as citizens of the great Republic, but it is consoling and encouraging to realize that free speech, a free press, free thought, free schools, the free and unmolested right of religious liberty and worship, and free and fair elections are dearer and more universally enjoyed today than ever before. These guaranties must be sacredly preserved and wisely strengthened. The constituted authorities must be cheerfully and vigorously upheld. Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilized country like the United States; courts, not mobs, must execute the penalties of the law. The preservation of public order, the right of discussion, the integrity of courts, and the orderly administration of justice must continue forever the rock of safety upon which our Government securely rests."

These words should give pause to those who would circumscribe the duty of the judiciary to protect the rights of Americans whose views, forms of religion, family structures, or political activities do not fit in perfectly with the "mainstream." Some have even suggested that Congress should remove the judiciary's jurisdiction over sensitive and controversial matters. McKinley understood that the courts are a bulwark of liberty and against unmitigated majoritarianism, a system of government inconsistent with republican principles. Republicanism, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."

William McKinley is not well-remembered today. He is famous, if at all, for fighting the Spanish-American War and getting assassinated, being succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. One must wonder whether another William's words -- the words of William Jefferson Clinton next Monday -- will be quoted 100 years from now in a newspaper like this. The chances are good; after all, as Oscar Wilde said (tongue firmly in cheek, one hopes), "In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever."

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1 comment:

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