Inaugurations, the grand continuum of American democracy

From one who's been part of several, inside and out, reflections on the context, the Speech, and the parties.
Crosscut archive image.

Michelle Obama in Denver. (Democratic National Convention Committee)

From one who's been part of several, inside and out, reflections on the context, the Speech, and the parties.

Numerous articles and commentaries have surfaced over the past few days regarding President-elect Barack Obama's upcoming inaugural Tuesday. Most have referred to inaugurals and inaugural speeches past. I have personal memories of several but prefer to discuss, first, what our new President can be expected to say.

Context: Obama is an Abraham Lincoln devotee who reportedly has been studying Lincoln speeches as a guide to his own. Lincoln's best speeches were famously brief. Many were delivered at a time of national crisis. Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural speech likewise was delivered at at time when, as he put it, "only a foolish optimist can deny the stark realities of the moment."

Obama will take office in the worst financial/economic crisis since World War II. But it does not approach the scale of the challenges FDR faced in the 1930s. Obama must talk straight to the American people and draw a clear picture of the present situation. But he also must take care not to overdo it. He will be asking the Congress and American people to approve unprecedented (in recent years) government aid for the U.S. financial and economic systems. But he will need to put the present situation in proper context and stress the fact that the problems are manageable and will, in fact, be overcome.

Obama also must take care not to overspeak or make pledges he cannot transform into policy. JFK, in 1961, pledged "to support any friend, oppose any foe" in what then was a Cold War era. He soon found himself trapped in the Bay of Pigs and an open-ended commitment in Vietnam, in pursuing policies flowing from those words.

Obama has made his reputation as a speechmaker and communicator. At critical junctures in his 2008 campaign he was called upon to make pivotal speeches and always came through. I expect him to do so again Tuesday and perhaps to appeal, as LIncoln did, "to the better angels of our nature."

There is another context, of course, to Tuesday's inaugural: Obama will be our first biracial president. President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural was notable because he was our first Catholic president. In 2008 we had come so far that serious presidential contenders included not only Obama, whose father was African, but Catholic, Mormon, Protestant fundamentalist, Jewish, and Latino candidates — and Hillary Clinton, a woman who almost defeated Obama for the Democratic nomination. Such would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

I was present at the 1965 inaugural of President Lyndon Johnson and my boss at the time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had only recently been enacted and the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, and other cornerstone laws had yet to be passed. They have been "givens" for many years in our national life. Obama will speak to a far different America next Tuesday than the one which existed not that many years ago.

Party On: Inaugural events include not only an inaugural speech and parade but countless parties, balls, concerts, and other events, both official and unofficial, over a period of several days. My life partner and I will not attend the inaugural and have kept as souvenirs the official invitations, tickets for seats at the inaugural speech, parade, and ball, and private-party invitations from law firms, interest groups, media organizations, and individuals. You wonder: Are there more parties and events taking place than people to fill them? (No problem. Everything will be overcrowded.)

As an obscure volunteer in the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, I was thrilled to the core by JFK's 1961 inaugural and speech. Not only had the despised Richard Nixon been defeated but a real generational change was taking place. Only four years later — and a bit more than a year since JFK's assassination — the 1965 Johnson inaugural was a more sober and businesslike occasion. It fell my lot then to represent Vice President-elect Humphrey on the inaugural committee and to be caught up in the wild scramble for tickets and special invitations that engulfs the committee before the actual inaugural event. I had weathered the national campaign without so much as catching cold, but the stress of the inaugural preparations sent me to bed with a flu and fever. No matter, I was summoned back to the maelstrom, sick or not, to help manage the last-minute demands of the million or so partisans who had flooded the capital.

If you like celebrations and parties, you will love an inaugural. Having been through the management side of same, I was never fully able to enjoy subsequent inaugurals as a celebrant. One of my favorites, though, was the 1993 Clinton inaugural. I had supported Paul Tsongas for the 1992 Democratic nomination but I had known President-elect Clinton and most of his campaign staff since their days as young political organizers. A Clinton campaign worker I did not know, Rahm Emanuel, solicited my support for the inaugural. My late wife and I attended the inaugural ball also attended by Arkansas Clinton supporters; it was raucus and happy.

Yes, inaugurals can be fun. But know, throughout, that Obama and members of his new administration will be preoccupied with the daunting tasks of governance lying just ahead and mainly will be wanting some private time for bed rest.

One more thing to keep in mind. Our country is still young. It was only a few generations back that George Washington's inaugural was celebrated. My maternal grandfather, who died at 93, told me of walking the Wilson's Creek civil war battlefield, near the family farm in southwest Missouri, shortly after it had ended. Abaham Lincoln was a powerful figure in his young boyhood — as Franklin Roosevelt was in mine. To young-generation members celebrating Obama's inaugural Tuesday, John F. Kennedy is more remote a figure than Woodrow Wilson was to my mine.

I don't know about you but I am excited and awaiting with anticipation Obama's Tuesday speech. He and we are a part of American democracy's continuum. May our American experiment live long and prosper. Yes We Can.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of