Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Prelude to an inaugural
By Tom Engelhardt
We consider ours a singular age of individual psychology and self-awareness.
Isn't it strange then that our recent presidents have had nothing either modest
or insightful to say about themselves in their first inaugural addresses, while
our earliest presidents in their earliest moments spoke openly of their
failings, limitations, and deficiencies.
In fact, the very first inaugural address by George Washington in New York City
on April 30, 1789, began with a personal apology. In a fashion inconceivable in
a country no longer known for
acknowledging its faults, our first president, in his very first words,
apologized to Congress for his own unworthiness to assume the highest office in
the new country he had helped to found. "On the other hand," he said, "the
magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called
me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her
citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but
overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature
and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly
conscious of his own deficiencies."
Inferior endowments … unpracticed in the duties of civil administration … his
own deficiencies. Remind me when you last heard words like those from an
This was, of course, the "father of our country", the former commander-in-chief
of the Continental Army, who had steadfastly seen the American revolution
through to victory. And yet, having a strong sense of the limits of what one
man could do as the head of a still modest-sized country, he began his
presidency by raising doubts about himself. Imagine that.
And don't think Washington's words were a fluke. When, 12 years later, Thomas
Jefferson gave his inaugural address from the unfinished Capitol building in a
Washington still under construction, he took up similar themes. The principal
author of the Declaration of Independence, the former governor of Virginia, the
former secretary of state, and the former vice president professed "a sincere
consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with
those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the
weakness of my powers so justly inspire".
Eight years later, president James Madison, too, acknowledged his
"deficiencies", as did James Monroe eight years after that, insisting that,
"[c]onscious of my own deficiency, I cannot enter on these duties without great
anxiety for the result".
How curious and archaic such sentiments seem today, highlighting as they did
humility, denigrating ability. Nor do these comments feel like meaningless
stylistic tics of that distant moment. Even from Washington and Jefferson who,
assumedly, knew that they had accomplished something Earth-shaking, the
protestations - read today - do not ring hollow.
What recent president would have considered saying, as Jefferson did, of the
task ahead, "I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the
magnitude of the undertaking."
Today, all this would stink of weakness, and so be taboo. To lead this country
to ultimate "security" and, of course, eternal greatness, our presidents must -
so goes the common wisdom - be ever strong and confident. They must, in fact,
sing hymns to our strength, as well as to our unquestioned "mission" or
"calling" in the world. In the first moments of a presidency, they must summon
Americans to do great things, as befits a great power, not just on the
national, but on the planetary stage.
By the time John F Kennedy came along, there was no more talk of shrinking from
contemplation. "In the long history of the world", he said in his inaugural
address, "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." He then sounded a "trumpet" to call on Americans to engage in
"a long twilight struggle … against the common enemies of man: tyranny,
poverty, disease, and war itself", not to speak of Soviet communism.
Ever since, presidents have regularly preached strength beyond compare,
threatened potential enemies, and hit the call notes of an ever more imperial
presidency. Underneath the often dull words of modern inaugurals lies a
distinct hubris, an emphasis on the potential limitlessness of American power,
which would reach its zenith (and apogee) in the commander-in-chief presidency
of George W Bush.
In his second inaugural address, after raising the warning flag of "our
vulnerability" and our need for security beyond compare, Bush pledged Americans
to a program of strength involving bringing "freedom" to nothing less than the
whole planet. He identified this as "the urgent requirement of our nation's
security, and the calling of our time … with the ultimate goal of ending
tyranny in our world". Limitlessness indeed.
Only one president in recent memory offered a shred of the modesty that the
first presidents exhibited. Jimmy Carter's 1976 inaugural address, coming in
the wake of Watergate, the Richard Nixon presidency, and the disaster of defeat
in Vietnam, called Americans to "a new spirit", a new way of thinking about the
country, which was to include a recognition of "our recent mistakes" and a
realization that "even our great nation has its recognized limits, and that we
can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems".
This would be a theme of his presidency, most famously in his "malaise" address
to the nation in July 1979 in which he called on Americans to face their
"intolerable dependence on foreign oil" and to recognize the limits of their
"worship" of "self-indulgence and consumption". Only he, of all our modern
presidents - or their speechwriters - who assumedly reread the earliest
inaugural addresses, picked up on the theme of personal limits. "Your
strength", he told Americans that January day in 1976, "can compensate for my
weakness, and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes".
Little good that, or his later infamous confession of "lust … in his heart" and
adultery in his dreams, did him. He was, after one term, soundly thumped by a
candidate who imagined a very different kind of "morning in America", involving
a nation without global limits.
Looked at another way, Washington and Jefferson had an advantage over recent
presidents. The country they were to lead was still an experiment that its
creators knew could go wrong; it had, in fact, done just that with the Articles
of Confederation, which hadn't worked out well.
So our earliest presidents had the modesty of uncertain beginnings to guide
them, just as we now have the immodesty of a government that garrisons much of
the planet to guide us. They were called on to lead a new nation which was
still militarily weak, whose capital, only 13 years after Jefferson doubted
himself in public, would be sacked and burned by British troops. They were
under oath to a country whose existence, only recently wrested from the great
imperial power of its day, was still a kind of fragile miracle.
We have just lived through a commander-in-chief presidency whose oppressive
power and overwhelming hubris would undoubtedly have left those early
presidents in shock, if not armed revolt. They would have seen George Bush's
world - in which strength was the byword of power and weakness an anathema - as
the scion of European autocracy. These were, after all, men wary of armies and
military power, who had sacrificed the very idea of executive strength to a
tripartite form of government that would, they hoped, have the advantages of
resiliency and responsibility. They understood - and embraced - certain limits
that Americans may only be waking up to now.
Prelude to an inaugural
It's in this light that I've been thinking about Barack Obama's inaugural
address, only days away. For a president who wants to set us on a new path amid
global disaster, what better time to remember the experimental modesty with
which our first presidents anxiously embarked on their journeys?
I also have to confess: I've had an urge to write a draft of that address. Of
course, like every president since Herbert Hoover, Obama already has a
speechwriter, 28-year-old Jonathan Favreau, who gained his 15 seconds of fame
recently for photos, briefly posted on Facebook, that showed him groping, then
dancing with, a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton. He has described his
speechwriting partnership with Obama this way: "He gives me lines that he wants
to use, phrases, ideas - he sends me e-mails with chunks of outlines and
speeches - so it's a real collaborative effort. It's very much a two-way
street. It's a little bit like being Tom Brady's quarterback coach."
Admittedly, I'm no quarterback coach, but like a lot of Americans I have some
thoughts on how I'd like to see my government proceed. Inaugural addresses are
all about tone, which matters, and, given the last eight years - have we ever
had a president who told more countries what they "must" do? - I'd like to hear
our next president speaking more like one of us and less like the ruler of the
universe, more like the president of these imperiled United States and less
like the autocrat of the planet.
Of course, Americans, especially younger ones, have long been alienated from
their government - aka "the bureaucracy" - and a national capital that projects
the oppressive look of a Green Zone. That's where an eloquent black president,
an improbable crosser of all sorts of boundaries, standing before us next
Tuesday to express his - and our - dreams and fears, offers an immediate ray of
hope. In his very words that first day, he can potentially begin airing out the
most secretive (and inefficient) government in national memory. He can remind
us of our better selves and let the sun shine in.
His campaign/transition team has admirably set up an online suggestion box
where we can even send his new administration our ideas and experiences and it
has evidently been busy indeed. But really, that's too polite. After all, the
government isn't his or his campaign's; it is - or should be - ours. The fact
is we don't need a website. We should be able to shout our thoughts, ideas,
criticisms from the rooftops, if we care to.
Of course, given these last years of a government gone dark and ominous, it's
not surprising that we generally don't. Facing the imperial, never-apologize,
don't-listen-to-a-word-you-say, Caesarian, unitary-executive,
commander-in-chief years of disarray, we Americans have - despite some online
liveliness - largely suffered a failure of the imagination.
If we want to have a government we care about, we had better start exercising
those imaginative powers fast. After all, if you don't use it, you lose it.
Voting isn't faintly enough. Supporting Obama isn't faintly enough. Either we
start acting like we, the people, can set a few agendas of our own, write a few
speeches of our own, or we might as well forget it.
In that spirit, and as an older American looking on with some dismay at our
strange and disturbing world, I thought I might briefly step into Favreau's
shoes. Obama hasn't, of course, e-mailed a single phrase or idea my way, but,
lacking in obvious qualifications as I may be, I continue to believe that we
shouldn't wait for that presidential call to participate in our government.
So, below, you'll find my draft of Obama's inaugural speech, one emphasizing
the strength that lies in modesty, in not playing the over-armed bully.
Admittedly, this may be an address which no American president would care to
give, centering as it does on an apology. If, however, we want to take a
genuine shot at starting anew, these last terrible years have to be
acknowledged, which means, first and foremost, apologizing for the damage the