Trump And A Short History of Inaugural Addresses
Posted on January 16, 2017On Trump and a short history of inaugural addresses...
Andrew Jackson’s inaugural address was the first on the East Portico of United States Capitol building. The crowd overwhelmed whatever security was in place to restrain it, as Jackson had to sneak through a tunnel to reach the appointed spot to give his remarks.
His address itself, in an era before microphones, could only be heard by a mere fraction of the attendees. It was a spare in its delivery, simple in its language, and relatively brief in its length.
At its conclusion, he left on his white Horse on a trip to the White House, where he hosted a raucous reception that grew into a frat party so intense that the new President had to slip out a window and retire to a tavern in Alexandria of all places.
I doubt that Donald Trump will lead the Inaugural Parade on a white horse, but the man is a showman, so you never know.
Trump is seen as a modern-day Andrew Jackson, a mobilizer of a whole new coalition of voters. But Jackson represented his class of voters well. He was a Western man of limited classical education, a General who ruthlessly slaughtered Indians and gladly fought duels to defend his honor and the honor of his wife Rachel.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Trump, on the other hand, is more like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a traitor to his class who speaks for the downtrodden from his perch high above the hoi polloi. It was Roosevelt, a nephew of a former President who spoke with the accent of the monied elite, who said:
“Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men…Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
The President-elect, undoubtedly will drive relentlessly a message consistent with his campaign pledge to make America great again. In doing so, he will attempt to define which Americans are worthy of fighting for.
Some of his speech will echo what Grover Cleveland said in 1885:
“The laws should be rigidly enforced which prohibit the immigration of a servile class to compete with American labor, with no intention of acquiring citizenship, and bringing with them and retaining habits and customs repugnant to our civilization.”
Like Trump, Cleveland was a New Yorker who attracted a large number of voters from the other party to win his election. Like Trump, he also avoided military service during wartime, paying good money for a Polish immigrant to serve in his stead during the Civil War. Cleveland won the popular vote in three consecutive elections, but because of our pesky Constitutional constraints that dictate the Electoral College, only won the election twice.
Defining national identity has long been the mission of Presidential inaugural address. But for Abraham Lincoln, it was preserving the union that was paramount on his mind. He often gets credit for ending slavery, but that’s not what he promised during his inaugural address. Indeed, this is what he said at the very beginning of his maiden Presidential speech,
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
Of course, we all know how that ended up.
Inaugural addresses are full of the best laid plans that do often go astray.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes won the tightest election in American history by basically promising to allow the Southern states to do whatever they wanted to do during the Reconstruction era. He said during his first address as President,
“The evils which afflict the Southern States can only be removed or remedied by the united and harmonious efforts of both races, actuated by motives of mutual sympathy and regard; and while in duty bound and fully determined to protect the rights of all by every constitutional means at the disposal of my Administration, I am sincerely anxious to use every legitimate influence in favor of honest and efficient local self-government as the true resource of those States for the promotion of the contentment and prosperity of their citizens.”
What ended up happening was the brutal suppression of former slaves and dominance of the Democratic Party in the South for the next century.
Woodrow Wilson made specific mention of his political party in his address when he won the White House in the 1910 election which saw the Republican Party split between the conservatives of William Howard Taft and the progressives led by Teddy Roosevelt.
“Here has been a change of government. It began two years ago, when the House of Representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority. It has now been completed. The Senate about to assemble will also be Democratic. The offices of President and Vice-President have been put into the hands of Democrats. What does the change mean? That is the question that is uppermost in our minds to-day. That is the question I am going to try to answer, in order, if I may, to interpret the occasion.”
That was one of the few addresses that I read that referred to a political party so high in the address.
An inaugural address, to stand the test of time, has to define the right fight for the nation. Herbert Hoover identified precisely the wrong fight in his address in 1929, with a stirring call to action to enforce the 18th Amendment more effectively.
“Of the undoubted abuses which have grown up under the eighteenth amendment, part are due to the causes I have just mentioned; but part are due to the failure of some States to accept their share of responsibility for concurrent enforcement and to the failure of many State and local officials to accept the obligation under their oath of office zealously to enforce the laws. With the failures from these many causes has come a dangerous expansion in the criminal elements who have found enlarged opportunities in dealing in illegal liquor.”
One of the acts of his successor was to sign into a law a repeal of that very amendment, the only time in our history where the American people changed its mind so spectacularly. Hoover would go down in history as one of our most ineffective Presidents.
It is rare that Inaugural Addresses inspire. But John Kennedy’s certainly did with words that still jump off the pages. The speech itself is a greatest hits of one-liners.
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world...Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
"This much we pledge--and more….And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country….My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
One liners often define a speech and a whole Presidency. Ronald Reagan’s lasting line in his first address undoubtedly made Washington elites nervous.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
That sentiment was hardly shared by Barack Obama, who pointedly replied, a generation later:
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”
For Donald Trump, his job is to convince a divided nation that he is not only up for the job, but that he has the temperament to faithfully follow the constraints of the Constitution as defined by our founding Fathers. A little humility wouldn’t hurt.
Trump would do well if he at least reflected on George Washington’s first address which started with this line.
“Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month.”
Washington wanted nothing more but to retire to his home at Mount Vernon, gaze upon the Potomac River and reflect on the progress they had made as a new nation.
But fate and a uncertain future required him to serve as a our nation’s first Chief Executive.
For Donald Trump, whose victory last November was large enough to be comfortable, but surprising enough to unnerve liberals and conservatives alike, his mission in this first address is chart a course that is both confident and inclusive. He promises to make an already great country great again.
He might reflect upon his political hero Richard Nixon who said in his surprisingly eloquent address in 1969:
“When we listen to 'the better angels of our nature,' we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things--such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another--until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.
"For its part, government will listen. We will strive to listen in new ways--to the voices of quiet anguish, the voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart--to the injured voices, the anxious voices, the voices that have despaired of being heard. Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.
"Those left behind, we will help to catch up."