Is a presidential inauguration just a silly ceremony?
By J.B. Williams
While all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding today's tradition of ushering in a new Commander-in-Chief often seem like nothing more than trite excuses to throw a grand party, the tradition of seating a new president of the United States is really much more.
And as history has shown, the open question revolves more around how an incoming president rises to the office, than what in his past has prepared him for this moment.
As a life long student of history and American politics, I am convinced that nothing on earth can prepare someone for the position of president of the United States, especially at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.
Three previous inaugural events come to mind when looking for a good comparison for the 2009 inaugural celebration.
Abraham Lincoln in 1861
By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had already left the Union to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy provided President Lincoln with a threat no other president had ever had to face.
The nation was divided and Lincoln was keenly aware that other states threatened to follow the path of the Confederacy.
From 1850 on, the nation was torn by violence. As Lincoln himself stated in his address, "I enter upon this task under great and peculiar difficulty."
Lincoln sought to calm the nation and reassure the South in particular, that the new administration would not "endanger" the "peace and security" of that section, but to no avail. The seeds of civil war had long since been sown. Some 625,000 Americans would die in the Civil War over the next four years.
President Lincoln would spend his entire presidency trying to end War.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933
The next greatest national crisis after the Civil War, the Great Depression signaled universal hopelessness. FDR began his presidency saying on March 4, 1933, that "the American people had nothing to fear but fear itself."
"Our Constitution is so simple and practical," FDR continued, "that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and government without loss of essential form." In other words, bringing new meaning to old ideas and text.
Roosevelt immediately implemented the "New Deal" with bank reform, using the full weight and power of the federal government to put Americans back to work and stabilize the economy, establishing for the first time in American history, a new role of government, to engage in the general welfare of individuals.
FDR greatly expanded presidential powers in the name of preserving the Union and by so doing, forever changed the meaning of Constitutional powers. It was a time of uncertainty and some doubted democracy could survive. It did survive under FDR, but at the expense of individual freedom and liberty.
The Constitutional term "general welfare" was changed from that concerning the broad common interests of the Common Wealth, to that concerning the inequities of private individual wealth.
America was forever changed by the New Deal, under which Americans would from that moment forward look to their federal government for government solutions to private personal matters.
And although FDR spoke of nothing to fear, peace and tranquility, he was eventually drawn into World War II, in which some 400,000 American soldiers would die for freedom abroad, as freedom was being systematically diminished at home.
John F. Kennedy in 1961
Kennedy's Inaugural Address lamented fears of impending global catastrophe. He referred to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and told the world that both sides must begin anew "the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction."
It was a time of bomb shelters and military escalation. It was the time of the "Cuban missile crisis" and daily warnings of a nuclear winter. The prospect of war went beyond battlefields and reverberated into the civil defense shelters advertised everywhere with yellow placards.
During his brief time in office, Kennedy steered the ship of state through the rough waters of the Cuban missile crisis. But again, he did so at considerable long term expense to American freedom and security.
Then, he led the nation to war in Vietnam, which would later become the centerpiece of the American anti-war movement wherein peace would become preferable at any cost, including tyranny.
Over 153,000 American soldiers died in the name of peace, as even more freedoms were lost at home.
The High Price of Peace
America was forever changed by the decisions that followed these three inaugurations. All three presidents entered office at a time of great turmoil and challenge. All three presidents found a way to bring relative peace and stability at a time when many thought such impossible.
Yet, in all three cases, systemic changes to our system of self-governance were made in the interest of a "greater common good." And in the end, history has recorded in what ways the free republic was forever altered, freedom was diminished, and the federal government was now becoming a power of, by and for itself...
In each case, the people and the Union was spared, albeit temporary, though at the greatest possible long term expense of individual freedom and liberty.
So it Goes in 2009
Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated on January 20, 2009. He will enter office at a time in history which is more difficult to manage than all three of the circumstances faced by Lincoln, Roosevelt and JFK combined.
The nation is more divided than ever in history. The nation is already engaged in a protracted war against international terror networks operating in more than 60 countries, including our own. Financial strife is already affecting every segment of American society, and this time, the ripples of the financial crisis are reaching around the entire globe.
Yet unlike Lincoln, Roosevelt and JFK, Barack Obama is a true neophyte in the arena of national politics, national security, economic calamity and global unrest.
This explains his appointment of the third Clinton administration and his efforts to bring people aboard who have some level of experience in the many areas where he has none.
Unlike Lincoln, Roosevelt and JFK, his basic citizenship and national loyalties are in great doubt on the eve of his taking office.
Though many Americans have great hopes for his unqualified ability to lead this nation through troubled waters, an equal number have great doubts just as strong.
And although every American is praying that he will somehow summon the capacity to get the nation through these difficult times, many wonder if it is even possible, or if so, at what further expense to individual freedom and liberty...
Still, here we are, One Nation, divided by racial, economic, religious and ideological diversity, facing the greatest collection of challenges we have ever faced as a nation, as we prepare to inaugurate a president who has for two years refused to offer even his birth or college records as proof of qualification for the job he seeks.
My how times have "changed" already.
To expect some positive outcome from such circumstances at a time when the nation must find a way to unite in common against the laundry list of threats to the republic, is to expect that which has never happened in history, and is less than likely to happen going forward.
If Mr. Obama seriously wants to unite the nation, then Mr. Obama must begin by offering the transparency he promised throughout his campaign for power...
He must answer the most fundamental questions ever asked of a presidential candidate...
Rising to today's challenges must begin with answering some very basic questions.
© 2009 J.B. Williams