(In)au(gu)ral History: Presidential Addresses, Past and Present

“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change.” With these words, John F. Kennedy opened his inaugural address on this day, 20 January, in 1961. Twenty years earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt embarked upon his third term as US President by insisting that democracy was “not dying,” whatever the apparent threats upon it or the wavering trust in its vigor. He urged his fellow citizens to “pause” and “take stock,” to “recall what [their] place in history has been, and to rediscover what [they] are and what [they] may be.” Not to do so, he cautioned, would mean to “risk the real peril of inaction.”

Granted, as Harry S. Truman remarked in 1949, “[e]ach period of [US] history has had its special challenges.” Yet somehow, as I listened to these past auguries and reappraisals, they began to echo and respond to each other as well as to the fears, doubts and hopes of our present day. I do not mean to imply that such reverberations betray a certain hollowness in their ready replication or applicability; rather, they begin to sound familiar in unexpected ways. Outside the context of its time—though not within the vacuum of ahistoricity in which no political speech can ring true or otherwise—passages from FDR’s 1941 address, for instance, brought to mind those terrifying—and terrifyingly uncertain—early days of the 21st century, particularly the repercussions the so-called war on terror has had for US politics and the way the Republic and all it stands for came to be perceived beyond its borders:

The life of a nation is the fullness of the measure of its will to live.

There are men who doubt this. There are men who believe that democracy, as a form of Government and a frame of life, is limited or measured by a kind of mystical and artificial fate that, for some unexplained reason, tyranny and slavery have become the surging wave of the future—and that freedom is an ebbing tide.

But we Americans know that this is not true.

Eight years ago, when the life of this Republic seemed frozen by a fatalistic terror, we proved that this is not true. We were in the midst of shock—but we acted. We acted quickly, boldly, decisively.

These later years have been living years—fruitful years for the people of this democracy. For they have brought to us greater security and, I hope, a better understanding that life’s ideals are to be measured in other than material things.

No doubt, Roosevelt was being somewhat self-congratulatory. Could a Republican successor to George W. Bush have made such a claim and been believed when suggesting that acting “quickly, boldly, decisively” back in 2001 has brought “greater security” or that the years have been “fruitful” ones for a democracy in which freedoms are being curtailed and surrendered in the dubious act of preserving them?

That “ideals are to be measured in other than material things” is an echo of the sentiments Roosevelt shared in his first inaugural address (4 March 1933), in which he told a Depression-stricken audience that the

[r]ecognition of that falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and [that]there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

The lesson, which each generation must learn anew, is, for the most part, not absorbed voluntarily; but this time around the “ideals” have been threatened along with those “material things” many find themselves divested of, partially as a result of failed policy and unchecked opportunism. It is this confidence in “ideals” as “truths” that the present administration is called upon to strengthen, so that the words of FDR, anno 1941, may once again ring true, namely that

[m[ost vital to our present and our future is this experience of a democracy which successfully survived crisis at home; put away many evil things; built new structures on enduring lines; and, through it all, maintained the fact of its democracy.

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