Inaugurations Are Occasions for Hope and Renewal

Posted January 16, 2009 at 1:42pm

Barack Obama’s swearing-in at noon today as our 44th and first African-American president marks a historic milestone for all of us. It is a day on which we look to the future with hope and a renewed sense of national purpose and dedication.

[IMGCAP(1)]Those of us who have been involved in government and politics for most of our lives tend to mark time by presidencies we’ve known rather than places we’ve lived, people we’ve dated or cars we’ve owned. So it’s understandable on this Inauguration Day that we also pause to reflect on past inaugurations and presidents we remember. For instance, I graduated from high school in 1960 and witnessed the election of John F. Kennedy that fall and the passing of the torch from one generation to the next in January.

I cast my first vote for president in 1964 while in graduate school. The following summer I came to Washington, D.C., as an intern with my Congressman, John Anderson (R-Ill.), working with other GOP interns on research task forces aimed at rejuvenating the party by developing alternatives to administration programs.

Perhaps most memorably I started working full time on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was first inaugurated president. (Lest I be guilty of slighting an even more important milepost in my life: I was married in December 1984, one month before Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration.)

Inauguration Day is probably the least partisan day of our political cycle. Shortly after Kennedy’s election, I vividly remember, my mother posted color photos of JFK and Jackie from Parade Magazine on our pantry bulletin board. “But, Mom,” I said, “I thought we were Republicans.” “We are,” she replied, “but he’s our president now.” That may be part of the reason I listened with special care to JFK’s inaugural address that January and later took up his challenge to ask what I could do for my country. Following grad school I joined the Peace Corps and was off to teach in Africa.

On returning to the United States from the Peace Corps I was shocked by how much America’s nerves had been rubbed raw over Vietnam. Maybe part of it was my moving to an urban environment after the Midwest and Africa; but Americans seemed much louder, more rude, angry and confrontational.

Nixon’s first inauguration therefore struck a particular chord with me when he said: “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 each other — until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

Despite Nixon’s rhetorical attempt to tamp down angry and misleading rhetoric, the decibel level ramped up again in April 1970 when his military incursion into Cambodia sparked angry protests around the nation. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Vietnam but a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate in June 1972 that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. On Aug. 9, 1974, in a nationally televised address from the White House, Vice President Gerald Ford uttered one of the most memorable lines upon being sworn in as president after Nixon stepped down: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

I first encountered Ford during my 1965 internship on the Hill. He had just been elected House Minority Leader the previous January, ousting Rep. Charles Halleck (R-Ind.). Ford was still leader when I returned to Washington full time in 1969 and when Nixon nominated him to be vice president upon Spiro Agnew’s resignation in October 1973 over bribery charges.

Ford was the first vice president to be appointed under the 25th Amendment, which requires presidential nomination and confirmation by both houses of Congress when a vacancy occurs in the office. An hour after the House overwhelmingly confirmed Ford on Dec. 6, 1973, he took the oath of office before a joint session of Congress. He joked with his former colleagues not to expect too much: “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln’s.” Three days after he was sworn in as president in 1974, Ford again addressed a joint session of Congress, delivering what he said was neither an inaugural address nor a State of the Union report. “The nation needs action, not words.”

One of the actions he announced was his acceptance of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s (D-Mont.) proposal for the White House to convene an economic conference of Members of Congress, the president’s economic team and “the best economic brains from labor, industry, and agriculture … to bring inflation under control.” “To restore economic confidence,” Ford said, “the government must provide some leadership. … Good government clearly requires that we tend to the economic problems facing our country in a spirit of equity to all of our citizens in all segments of our society.”

Today we are certain to hear similar phrases in President Obama’s inaugural address as the country again faces serious economic challenges. The rhetoric of inaugurations can help to inspire, reassure and motivate a nation. The actions that follow, however, will determine how successful we will be.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.