We consider ours a singular age of individual psychology and self-awareness. Isn’t it strange then that our recent presidents have had nothing either modest or insightful to say about themselves in their first inaugural addresses, while our earliest presidents in their earliest moments spoke openly of their failings, limitations, and deficiencies.
In fact, the very first inaugural address — George Washington’s in New York City on April 30, 1789 — began with a personal apology. In a fashion inconceivable in a country no longer known for acknowledging its faults, our first president, in his very first words, apologized to Congress for his own unworthiness to assume the highest office in the new country he had helped to found. "On the other hand," he said, "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."
Inferior endowments… unpracticed in the duties of civil administration… his own deficiencies. Remind me when you last heard words like those from an American president.
This was, of course, the "father of our country," the former commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, who had steadfastly seen the American revolution through to victory. And yet, having a strong sense of the limits of what one man could do as the head of a still modest-sized country, he began his presidency by raising doubts about himself. Imagine that.
And don’t think Washington’s words were a fluke. When, 12 years later, Thomas Jefferson gave his inaugural address from the unfinished Capitol building in a Washington still under construction, he took up similar themes. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the former governor of Virginia, the former secretary of state, and the former vice president professed "a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire."
Eight years later, James Madison, too, acknowledged his "deficiencies," as did James Monroe eight years after that, insisting that, "[c]onscious of my own deficiency, I cannot enter on these duties without great anxiety for the result."
How curious and archaic such sentiments seem today, highlighting as they did humility, denigrating ability. Nor do these comments feel like meaningless stylistic tics of that distant moment. Even from Washington and Jefferson who, assumedly, knew that they had accomplished something Earth-shaking, the protestations — read today — do not ring hollow.
What recent president would have considered saying, as Jefferson did, of the task ahead, "I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking."
Today, all this would stink of weakness, and so be taboo. To lead this country to ultimate "security" and, of course, eternal greatness, our presidents must — so goes the common wisdom — be ever strong and confident. They must, in fact, sing hymns to our strength, as well as to our unquestioned "mission" or "calling" in the world. In the first moments of a presidency, they must summon Americans to do great things, as befits a great power, not just on the national, but on the planetary stage.
By the time John F. Kennedy came along, there was no more talk of shrinking from contemplation. "In the long history of the world," he said in his inaugural address, "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it." He then sounded a "trumpet" to call on Americans to engage in "a long twilight struggle… against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself," not to speak of Soviet Communism.
Ever since, presidents have regularly preached strength beyond compare, threatened potential enemies, and hit the call notes of an ever more imperial presidency. Underneath the often dull words of modern inaugurals lies a distinct hubris, an emphasis on the potential limitlessness of American power, which would reach its zenith (and apogee) in the commander-in-chief presidency of George W. Bush.
In his second inaugural address, after raising the warning flag of "our vulnerability" and our need for security beyond compare, Bush pledged Americans to a program of strength involving bringing "freedom" to nothing less than the whole planet. He identified this as "the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time… with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Limitlessness indeed.
Only one president in recent memory offered a shred of the modesty that the first presidents exhibited. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 inaugural address, coming in the wake of Watergate, the Nixon presidency, and the disaster of defeat in Vietnam, called Americans to "a new spirit," a new way of thinking about the country, which was to include a recognition of "our recent mistakes" and a realization that "even our great Nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems."
This would be a theme of his presidency, most famously in his "malaise" address to the nation in July 1979 in which he called on Americans to face their "intolerable dependence on foreign oil" and to recognize the limits of their "worship" of "self-indulgence and consumption." Only he, of all our modern presidents — or their speechwriters — who assumedly reread the earliest inaugural addresses, picked up on the theme of personal limits. "Your strength," he told Americans that January day in 1976, "can compensate for my weakness, and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes."
Little good that, or his later infamous confession of "lust… in his heart" and adultery in his dreams, did him. He was, after one term, soundly thumped by a candidate who imagined a very different kind of "morning in America," involving a nation without global limits.
Looked at another way, Washington and Jefferson had an advantage over recent presidents. The country they were to lead was still an experiment that its creators knew could go wrong; it had, in fact, done just that with the Articles of Confederation, which hadn’t worked out well.
So our earliest presidents had the modesty of uncertain beginnings to guide them, just as we now have the immodesty of a government that garrisons much of the planet to guide us. They were called on to lead a new nation which was still militarily weak, whose capital, only 13 years after Jefferson doubted himself in public, would be sacked and burned by British troops. They were under oath to a country whose existence, only recently wrested from the great imperial power of its day, was still a kind of fragile miracle.
We have just lived through a commander-in-chief presidency whose oppressive power and overwhelming hubris would undoubtedly have left those early presidents in shock, if not armed revolt. They would have seen George Bush’s world — in which strength was the byword of power and weakness an anathema — as the scion of European autocracy. These were, after all, men wary of armies and military power, who had sacrificed the very idea of executive strength to a tripartite form of government that would, they hoped, have the advantages of resiliency and responsibility. They understood — and embraced — certain limits that Americans may only be waking up to now.
Prelude to an Inaugural
It’s in this light that I’ve been thinking about Barack Obama’s inaugural address, only days away. For a president who wants to set us on a new path amid global disaster, what better time to remember the experimental modesty with which our first presidents anxiously embarked on their journeys?
I also have to confess: I’ve had an urge to write a draft of that address. Of course, like every president since Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama already has a speechwriter, 28-year-old Jonathan Favreau, who gained his 15 seconds of fame recently for photos, briefly posted on Facebook, that showed him groping, then dancing with, a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton. He has described his speechwriting partnership with Obama this way: "He gives me lines that he wants to use, phrases, ideas — he sends me e-mails with chunks of outlines and speeches — so it’s a real collaborative effort. It’s very much a two-way street. It’s a little bit like being Tom Brady’s quarterback coach."
Admittedly, I’m no quarterback coach, but like a lot of Americans I have some thoughts on how I’d like to see my government proceed. Inaugural addresses are all about tone, which matters, and, given the last eight years — Have we ever had a president who told more countries what they "must" do? — I’d like to hear our next president speaking more like one of us and less like the ruler of the universe, more like the president of these imperiled United States and less like the autocrat of the planet.
Of course, Americans, especially younger ones, have long been alienated from their government — aka "the bureaucracy" — and a national capital that projects the oppressive look of a Green Zone. That’s where an eloquent black president, an improbable crosser of all sorts of boundaries, standing before us next Tuesday to express his — and our — dreams and fears, offers an immediate ray of hope. In his very words that first day, he can potentially begin airing out the most secretive (and inefficient) government in national memory. He can remind us of our better selves and let the sun shine in.
His campaign/transition team has admirably set up an on-line suggestion box where we can even send his new administration our ideas and experiences and it has evidently been busy indeed. But really, that’s too polite. After all, the government isn’t his or his campaign’s; it is — or should be — ours. The fact is we don’t need a website. We should be able to shout our thoughts, ideas, criticisms from the rooftops, if we care to.
Of course, given these last years of a government gone dark and ominous, it’s not surprising that we generally don’t. Facing the imperial, never-apologize, don’t-listen-to-a-word-you-say, Caesarian, unitary-executive, commander-in-chief years of disarray, we Americans have — despite some online liveliness — largely suffered a failure of the imagination.
If we want to have a government we care about, we had better start exercising those imaginative powers fast. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Voting isn’t faintly enough. Supporting Barack Obama isn’t faintly enough. Either we start acting like we, the people, can set a few agendas of our own, write a few speeches of our own, or we might as well forget it.
In that spirit, and as an older American looking on with some dismay at our strange and disturbing world, I thought I might briefly step into Favreau’s shoes. Barack Obama hasn’t, of course, emailed a single phrase or idea my way, but, lacking in obvious qualifications as I may be, I continue to believe that we shouldn’t wait for that presidential call to participate in our government.
So, below, you’ll find my draft of Obama’s inaugural speech, one emphasizing the strength that lies in modesty, in not playing the over-armed bully. Admittedly, this may be an address which no American president would care to give, centering as it does on an apology. If, however, we want to take a genuine shot at starting anew, these last terrible years have to be acknowledged, which means, first and foremost, apologizing for the damage the Bush administration did to our country, to the world, and undoubtedly to the future. We need to apologize, among many other things, for having thought so much about our own immediate "safety" and "security" (as well as gain), and so little about the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
I remain convinced that the Vietnam War has dogged this country for endless decades largely because most Americans and their leaders were never willing to come to grips with what we had done, and so never offered a word of apology or any restitution for the damage caused. What is not reckoned with, not acknowledged, not atoned for, haunts us.
After the 2004 election, a website, Sorry Everybody, was set up that contained a photo album of young Americans holding signs apologizing for the election of George W. Bush. How right they were in every sense. Once the damage is done, saying you’re sorry is never enough. But it is a start, which is what an inaugural moment should be.
It’s now well past time to leave behind the imperial fantasies of the Bush era and join a world in trouble — and there’s no better day to begin than on January 20, 2009.
In a Dark Valley
Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address
In my lifetime, presidents have regularly come before you, the American people, proclaiming new dawns or hailing this country as a shining city upon a hill, an example to the rest of the world. But on this cold, wintry day, I hardly need tell you that we seem to have joined much of the rest of the world in an increasingly shadowy, sunless valley.
We — not just we Americans but all of us — are living in a world in peril, one in which we have far more to fear than fear itself. And don’t imagine, having just taken the oath of office on the Bible Abraham Lincoln laid his hand on in an earlier moment of national crisis, that I don’t have my own fears about the task ahead. I can’t help but worry whether my abilities are up to challenges, which would surely have been daunting even to a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt.
Nonetheless, you elected me. You have, I know, invested your hopes in me in these trying times. And fortunately, I sense that you are at my side now and will, I hope, remain there, encouraging and criticizing, praising or chiding as you see fit, through the worst and, with luck, the best of times. I’m thankful for that. Without your support, your wisdom, what could I hope to accomplish? We — and in this presidency, when I use that word, I will mean you and me, not the royal "we" to which American presidents have become far too attached — we can, I think, hope to accomplish much, but only if we’re honest with ourselves.
This nation was founded in the immodest modesty of experimentation by men who hoped for much but were aware that they did not always know what might work. They were ready to falter, to fall on their faces, to fail, and yet not to quit. We — you and I — must be willing to do the same. In this difficult moment, we must be willing to acknowledge our limits, to admit our mistakes, and to welcome all others who care to join us, or want us to join them, on the path of experimentation in a needy world.
Let me, then, start — not simply as your new president but as a human being, a proud American, and the father of two children who deserve a better future, not a thoroughly degraded world — with two simple words: I’m sorry.
In the last eight years, we Americans have in no way lived up to our better natures. Our country has, in fact, repeatedly caused grievous damage to others and to ourselves. The mistakes, the misguided policies, have been legion. We — you and I — must do our best to correct them and make amends. For Americans, at home and abroad, there must be a better way.
The kidnapping of people off the streets of global cities, the disappearing of suspects who have no chance to face judge or jury, the torture, abuse, and killing of prisoners, these are wounds inflicted on the world and on ourselves. There must be a better way.
Shock-and-awe assaults on other nations, whether by ourselves or allies we’ve green-lighted, lead — it should be clear enough by now — to horrors beyond measure visited on civilians. There must be a better way.
The repeated firing of missiles at, and the bombing of, villages halfway across the globe, the repeated killing of innocent farm families while on missions to protect ourselves, constitutes a global war for terror, not against it. There must be a better way.
The twisting of our Constitution into whatever shape a president (and his lawyers) find useful or power-enhancing constitutes a body blow to this nation. There must be a better way.
The offering of vast bailouts, without strings or oversight, to the most profligate and greediest among us, while ignoring the daily suffering of ordinary Americans inflicts grievous harm on our society. There must be a better way.
The turning of our government — your government — into a surveillance state, a spy society, meant to eternally watch you cannot represent the fulfillment of the dreams of Washington or Jefferson. There must be a better way.
Transforming the heavens into a storage depot for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels is like passing a death sentence on humanity. There must be a better way.
Considering war and military action the solution of first, not last, resort whenever a difficult or painful problem arises represents a disastrous path. There must be a better way.
Of all times, this is no time to be at war. For our recent wars, all of us have paid a heavy price, not just in lives that should never have been lost, but in distraction from what truly matters.
We were once proudly a can do nation. For the last eight years, we have been a can’t do nation, incapable of rebuilding great cities or small towns, replacing failing bridges or shoring up our systems of levees. And yet we’ve had the presumption to believe that we, who had lost the knack for rebuilding at home, had a special ability to rebuild other societies far from home. All of this has to end now. We need to do better.
Everywhere on this shaky planet people feel insecure and unsafe — and we have only sharpened such feelings in these last years. To feel secure and safe should be the most basic of rights. It is, however, far past time for us to give the very idea of security new meaning. Yes, we must protect ourselves. Any country must do that for its citizens, but you, the American people, must also hear a truth that has not been said in these last eight years. It is a fantasy to believe that, in the long run, we can make ourselves secure to the detriment of everyone else. On that path lies only insecurity for all. We need to do better.
In policy terms, tomorrow is the day to roll up our sleeves and begin, but today I want to say to you: Don’t despair. Yes, the news is grim. Yes, as Americans and as citizens of this world we should know our limits and the increasingly apparent limits of our small planet, but we should also dream, and struggle, and plan, and innovate.
I repeated one phrase many times during the long presidential campaign, and I emphatically repeat it today: Yes, we can!
And when we do, we have to reach out to the world with our discoveries and ideas, but without the sense that those discoveries, those ideas, are the be-all and end-all. We have to learn how to listen as well as teach.
Our planet will either be an ark, which will carry us, and our children and grandchildren, through time and space, or it will be our grave. This is a stark choice that seems no choice at all. But believe me, to choose the ark, not the grave, is the hardest thing of all. Nonetheless, may that be the choice to which we Americans consecrate ourselves on this day and in all the days to come.
Thank you and God bless us all.
[Note on further inaugural reading: For those wanting to check out inaugural addresses through the centuries -- not, admittedly, one of the most thrilling forms of rhetoric known to humanity -- click here. American historian Jill Lepore, whose regular New Yorker essays should not be missed, has recently done a superb review of the inaugural form. (For the full piece, you need to get your hands on the actual magazine.) Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts, his history of presidential ghost writers, has just appeared in paperback for those of you dreaming about presidential speechwriting. And finally, one striking modern discussion of an inaugural address should be noted. In his stirring book on Lincoln's most famous speech, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills lays out just what a president could do with the work of a "speechwriter." William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state designee, wrote the initial draft of his first inaugural address, but (as Wills demonstrates) Abe, who was more than capable of writing his own material, was also the greatest presidential editor of all time. (Start reading Wills at page 157.) Here's what he did with the famous last line of that address:
As Seward wrote it: "The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation."
As Lincoln edited and reworked it: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."]
[Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com, where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), and editor of the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso).]