A Point of View: Roll up for the inauguration

Obama inauguration

The US presidential inauguration is a unique political spectacle, says historian David Cannadine.

Whenever possible, I like to be in the United States to witness the patriotic festivities and political theatre that once again took place in Washington DC last Monday, for they are an extraordinary amalgam of national celebration and religious fervour, piety and partying, glitz and glory, showbiz and razzle-dazzle.

Nowhere else in the world is there anything quite like an American presidential inauguration, and the fact they've happened once every four years for more than two and a quarter centuries is also unique.

In their fundamentals, the pomp and the ceremonial are essentially unchanging, and all of them since Bill Clinton's second inaugural in 1997 have been available live on the internet, which means it's possible to follow this quintessentially American spectacle as it happens from virtually anywhere in the world.

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David Cannadine
  • A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • David Cannadine is a British historian, author and professor of history at Princeton University

But no two presidential inaugurations are ever completely alike, even if they involve the same president, and to catch the special mood and the immediate resonances, you ideally need to be somewhere in the US when and as they happen.

This time, a delayed flight from Britain meant I viewed President Obama's second inauguration on a small screen, high above the snow and clouds, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Bad winter weather almost invariably leads to the cancellation of many flights to and from Britain, but while temperatures can often be sub-zero in Washington DC at this time of year, the cold and the snow have never been so severe that a presidential inauguration has yet been called off. On occasions, though, the programme has been modified to take account of the icy conditions, and the swearing-in has sometimes been held inside the Capitol building rather than outside - in 1909, when William Howard Taft took the oath of office, and again in 1985 when President Reagan was inaugurated for the second time.

Ronald Reagan is still the oldest American president to hold office, and he'd been lucky to have survived an assassination attempt early in his first term, so there was good reason to be concerned about his health on a colder than average Washington winter day.

1985 presidential inauguration Ronald Reagan's 1985 inauguration - one of only two ever held indoors

And there was one earlier unhappy episode, dating from 1841, which no one on Reagan's staff wanted to become a precedent. That year, President William Henry Harrison delivered an inaugural address of more than 8,000 words, which lasted almost two hours, and he refused to wear a coat or a hat.

As a result of such prolonged exposure to the bitter cold, Harrison promptly caught pneumonia, and died a month later, thereby achieving the double and ironic distinction of the longest inaugural address, and the shortest American presidency.

Fortunately, most inaugurals have been more concise, the briefest of them all being George Washington's second, which was only 135 words long. On Monday, Barack Obama spoke for 18 minutes, which is about average for recent addresses. He took the oath of office on two bibles which had been owned by two of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

Obama's speech was less euphoric and exultant than his first inaugural, and after four years of bruising battles with a gridlocked Congress, he had toned down his high-minded appeals to put an end to partisan bickering and the old style of politics, and for those belonging to both parties to come together in the national interest.

But it was a confident and eloquent performance from a president who, for the moment at least, seems not only to have been re-elected, but also to have recaptured the political initiative. There was still plenty for his supporters to cheer.

In general, second inaugural addresses tend to be very different in tone and substance from those delivered by incoming presidents four years earlier. A new administration means new people in Washington, new policies to get the country moving again, a new beginning and the hope of national revival.

Lincoln memorial Abraham Lincoln: "With malice towards none and with charity for all"

Such, at least, are the claims often made in first inaugurals, and sometimes at least, they turn out to be true.

In 1861, facing the prospect of civil war, Lincoln exhorted all Americans to be friends not enemies, and appealed (vainly as it turned out), to what he memorably called "the better angels of our nature".

Start Quote

We shall answer to God, to history, and to our conscience for the way in which we use these years”

End Quote Richard Nixon

In 1933, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", and offered a "new deal" to the American people, promising a period of bold, vigorous and continuous experimentation, which he hoped would reduce unemployment and get American workers back into jobs.

Second inaugurals, by contrast, are often less upbeat and uplifting, since it's no longer possible for a president, having already been four years in office, to offer a new deal, or to proclaim, as Obama did in 2009, that "change is coming to America".

One alternative is to play it safe - to say, as both Reagan and Clinton did, that the national revival they promised had indeed begun during their first term, and that they would devote their second term to seeing it through.

But other presidents have been more rash. Richard Nixon announced that his administration would "answer to God, to history and to our conscience for the way in which we use these years", which was giving a serious hostage to fortune, for the impending Watergate scandal meant there would soon be plenty of answering to be done.

And George W Bush proclaimed that the US would work to expand "freedom in all the world", a laudable enterprise, no doubt, but one which, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan, has met with questionable success while costing a great deal in American lives and money.

Among second inaugural addresses, the greatest remains that delivered by Lincoln in 1865, which was made all the more poignant because he was assassinated soon after. By then, the Civil War was almost over, and Lincoln had preserved the union, emancipated the slaves and given the Gettysburg address, which included his great panegyric on democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people".

But now he had to try to pull the nation together, speaking "with malice towards none and with charity for all", "with high hope for the future", and expressing his resolve to "finish the work we are in". And so he pledged himself "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, [and] to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace".

Celebrating the inauguration

By comparison with the challenges that Lincoln faced in 1865, the problems confronting Obama may seem of secondary significance. The American people may be divided, but the president doesn't have to bring the American nation back from the very brink of disintegration and dissolution, as Lincoln did.

Yet the challenges Obama faces can scarcely be dismissed as trivial - a still-depressed economy, a spiralling national debt, millions of illegal immigrants, climate change, global warming and gun control, and the seemingly intractable problems in Afghanistan, the Middle East and now in north Africa too. Lincoln's concerns were primarily domestic and political, but Obama's are economic and global as well.

For one brief day, a presidential inauguration may be a celebration of freedom, democracy and of national unity, and in calling upon Americans to "seize the moment", Obama gave an assertive articulation of the liberal agenda he hopes to implement.

But the Republican opposition is already gathering force, and as he begins his second term, the president may soon be wondering where are to be found those "better angels of our nature" when you really need them?

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