Magazine | February 9, 2009, Issue

A Rhapsode and a Question Mark

The Obama inauguration, placed in history

Fussy rituals, ubiquitous kitsch, Aretha Franklin doing her thing, Rick Warren doing his thing, the weather (cold enough to be challenging, not inclement enough to be painful), but above all the crowds: Deduct what you will for partisan fervor, racial pride, and media tub-thumping, the inauguration of Barack Obama was still an impressive piece of popular theater, less for the spectacle that was put on than for the performance the audience gave by showing up.

One small but essential part was played by the outgoing Bushes. Departing presidents do not always play so well with others: Both Adamses, John and John Quincy, were so outraged by providence’s rebuke to them (and to the nation that had betrayed them by voting for someone else) that they did not even attend the inaugurations of their successors, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson respectively. The Bushes were a class act. George W. Bush was also palpably relieved to be handing off to someone else.

Most of our inaugurations and inaugural addresses have been forgettable. It is the glory of our system that they can be. Still we have had our share of drama.

For sheer euphoria, nothing, not even 2009, tops Washington’s first inauguration, in 1789. His trip, from Mount Vernon to New York City, then the capital, was a triumphal progress through six of the thirteen states. Twenty-five thousand people cheered him in Philadelphia, out of a population of 28,000. Rep. Fisher Ames, one of the rising orators of the age, judged the inaugural address with a pro’s eye and ear. Washington, he wrote, was “actually shaking,” and his voice was “so low as to call for close attention.” But these shortcomings only added to the drama of the occasion.

Disaster made other inaugurations dramatic. On the day of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, in 1861, Winfield Scott, the old Mexican War hero who was lieutenant general of the Army, posted himself in a small carriage on a side street, in full uniform, ready for any emergency. What Scott feared was assassination, followed by riot and panic. Two weeks before Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration, in 1933, he narrowly missed being shot by an anarchist in Miami Beach. The bullets instead killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who had followed Roosevelt to Florida to get right with the president-elect (Cermak had not endorsed him early enough at the 1932 convention). Even without the whiff of murder, these inaugurations were made grim enough, thanks to political and economic chaos.

Incoming presidents like to advertise themselves as avatars of change. If they are only the next figure to pop out of a clock, what is the glory in that? Sometimes the new president can make good on that claim. Thomas Jefferson came into office in 1801 promising to undo the legacy of America’s first majority party, the Federalists of Washington and John Adams; though he spoke emollient words in his inaugural — “We are all republicans, we are all federalists” — in private he vowed “to sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection.” For public consumption, he proposed to cut taxes, honor states’ rights, and demilitarize, defending the nation with gunboats instead of frigates.

Lincoln was elected on a platform of containing the slave power — no more slavery in the territories, and no expansion into Central America or the Caribbean in order to acquire new slave territories. He iterated it in the interval between his election and his inauguration. “On the territorial question,” he wrote in February 1861, “I am inflexible.” His containment policy was so offensive to southerners that seven states seceded before he was sworn in; four more followed them once it was clear that the new president meant what he said.

Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 as half a Jefferson, promising to cut taxes. But he was also half a Washington, determined to end a decade of foreign-policy disasters, from losing the Vietnam War to losing the American embassy in Tehran. He explained his new Cold War policy to one of his inner circle, William P. Clark, thus: We win, they lose.

But other new presidents have seemed like new departures not because of what they offered to do, but because of who they were. Their agendas were nebulous; their persons were revolutionary. When Andrew Jackson won his rematch with John Quincy Adams in 1828, Jacksonian democracy was not yet even a name, much less a program. Jackson seemed fresh because he was the first president who was neither a Virginian nor an Adams; he had been a boy during the Revolution, not a founder or the son of a founder; he had been born on the frontier and fought on it; he had never gone to college (“a barbarian” who “hardly could spell his own name,” was how John Quincy Adams put it). Some feared the advent of such a figure — Justice Joseph Story foresaw “the reign of King Mob” — and others welcomed him. But everyone expected something new.

#page# Franklin Roosevelt took office with some of the same ambiguity. Like Jackson, he knew he wanted the job, and he believed that his predecessor had done badly — no one, looking at the unemployment figures, would dispute that — but his program was not at all clear. “If we have to change our minds twice every day,” he told one crony, “we should do it.” What was clear was that he seemed very different from the man he replaced. Herbert Hoover was a typical figure of the decay of a political dynasty: a smart insider who had risen on the coattails of two politicians, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt, by contrast, was to the manor, and the manner, born. He had the confidence of a two-term governor and of eighth-generation gentry, plus that million-dollar smile.

Some new presidents, finally, bask in hype. John F. Kennedy’s inauguration was historic — a little: He was the youngest elected president, and he was the first Roman Catholic. But these, and every other quality of his, were amplified by a besotted media. Theodore H. White was a decent, honorable reporter, but he fell for Kennedy as hard as any other journalist, even while trying to analyze the phenomenon: Kennedy, he wrote in The Making of the President 1960, “is a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, and a one-time reporter; he has an enormous respect for those who work with words and those who write clean prose. He likes newspapermen and likes their company.” One would like to barf.

Where does Obama fall in this range of new and would-be new presidents? Somewhere with Jackson, FDR, and JFK. His campaign was as vague as it was uplifting; his most hard-edged issue, his opposition to the war in Iraq, helped him win the enthusiasm of the netroots and early momentum in his upset of Hillary Clinton, but it faded as the surge succeeded. Obama is historic because of who he is, and what we say about him.

Obama will be the fifth-youngest new president. He is also one of the least experienced — Ulysses Grant, who was fourth-youngest, had won the Civil War — but coming after George W. Bush, whose eight years have seemed like 80, a little ignorance feels like bliss. Obama’s life story is unique in the annals of the presidency. His absent foreign father, his peripatetic mother, his time in Indonesia, and his pilgrimage to Kenya is as odd as a non-immigrant’s life can be. It recalls some of the comets of American history, Alexander Hamilton or Henry Kissinger. We have put a V. S. Naipaul character in the White House. His supporters believe this will make us popular abroad. I suspect that we have elected an unusually proud and self-directed character; if the displaced survive and thrive, those are the qualities that enable them to do it. Reporters admire Obama for at least one of the reasons they admired John Kennedy: He is a fellow verbalist. Without being a Jefferson or a Lincoln, he is the best writer to reach the presidency since Theodore Roosevelt.

Last (and first) comes race. In the Obama administration, trying to talk or think about race will be like standing in a hurricane on top of Mt. Washington. We should only remember that there are some good reasons why this should be so. We had a long way to come to this moment, and we should feel proud that we arrived. On one hand, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot 41 years ago; on the other, we have put a Luo in the presidency before Kenya.

Obama’s inaugural remarks were not a State of the Union address, but he put himself on record calling for government action, and a mobilization (led by him) of our idealistic impulses. “The time has come to set aside childish things. . . . We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. . . . The spirit of service . . . must inhabit us all. . . . What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.” Buckle up, the president intends to ride the credit crunch to the Newest Deal.

He also acknowledged the world, announcing that “we are ready to lead once more.” But what about those who do not desire our leadership? To the worst of them, he said: “Our spirit is stronger” and “We will defeat you.” He will be given the opportunity to make good on those pledges.

The Greeks had a character called the rhapsode: a professional reciter of their greatest poetry, particularly Homer. Plato mocks rhapsodes in his dialogues, partly because he envies Homer, who was a better writer than he was. But he also maneuvers his rhapsodes into showing their essential shallowness: One declares that, since he tells of the Iliad’s battles, he must therefore be a great general.

Barack Obama is not just a rhapsode. He is a cunning politician. We will see what more he is over the next four, maybe eight, years.


Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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