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THE INAUGURAL . . . from Virginia's George Washington to California's Ronald Reagan

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Here is historic irony, too, in the inaugural game: The reader knows what will happen, while the presidential orators anxiously peer into the future. Herbert Hoover, for example, on March 4, 1929, only nine months away from the Wall Street crash (Oct. 29, 1929), extolling the boom: "In the large view, we have reached a higher degree of comfort and security than ever existed before in the history of the world . . . . We are steadily building a new race -- a new civilization great in its own attainments." Then the bottom dropped out.

Or here is President Nixon on Jan. 20, 1973; he complains of Vietnam war critics: "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." His alternative -- "Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America's history. . . ." This was the start of 1973. He would resign Aug. 7, 1974.

There is something in the sententious, oratorical style of these historic efforts that brings inevitable inquiry into the actualities of what came after. Many of the utterances are noble. Most of them probably achieved their goal of lifting hearts, for the moment at least, of promoting unity, of abjuring partisan bickering and reviving common effort. The reader, in the unfair advantage of retrospect, can gauge how long the effect of this pep talk lasted or wonder in amazement how an earlier generation failed to see trends and dangers right under its nose. The reader ends by asking, in the latest presidential inaugural, what profound development he is missing today.

President after president up to 1861, for example, faced the corrupting problem of slavery. The very Founding Fathers in their Constitution, of course, ingeniously dodged the issue by avoiding using the words "slave," "black," or "Negro." They refer to the race, for example, in Article I, Section 9, as "certain persons," and the "migration or importation of such persons. . . ."

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