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    Front Page
     Jan 15, 2009
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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 American president.

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 Bush 

Continued 1 2 


What Obama knows, America forgot (Jan 12,'09)

Obama and the new Latin America
(Dec 18,'08)

Weapons come second (Nov 27,'08)


1. Iran pushed to the pre-electronic age

2. Gaza: A pawn in the new 'great game'

3. China rift opens in Vietnam

4. Every breath is needed

5. What Obama knows,
Americans have forgotten


6. Tigers turn on themselves

7. A triumph of wishful thinking

8. Race to the death over Kashmir waters

9. In the shadow of unwanted bunds

10. Slumming it in Mumbai

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 13, 2009)

 
 



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