An inauguration of and from us
Political affiliations aside, it's hard to witness a presidential inaugural without being moved by the American people's quadrennial bestowing of power on their chosen leaders.
There will be ample time to analyze President Obama's remarks for portents of his second-term agenda, but the greatest thrill for me comes in the knowledge that the president, vice president, and the senior congressional and judicial figures present are all of and from all of us. They are all undertaking a constitutional exercise close to those we see at play in local level power exchanges. Even the oaths of office are similar to those administered to garden-variety appointees and to men and women entering the armed forces.
Richard Blanco's recitation of his "One Sky" tribute to our ultimate oneness was Monday's most moving moment for me. Obama, standing nearby, may have wished his own remarks contained such lyricism.
All major political figures have ghost writers, but it is important to know that, when it comes to their inaugural speeches, our presidents labor personally, working and reworking their texts until the last moment. They know that down the road their speeches will be published in compendiums of inaugural speeches; that they will later be judged as large or small, appropriate to their time or lacking.
Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are well known for their historic inaugural addresses, delivered at times of national crisis.
In more modern times, the most dramatic inaugural speech was President John F. Kennedy's in 1961, delivered bareheaded on a cold, snowy day. Kennedy represented a new generation of leaders who had fought in World War II. He pledged on that day "to support any friend and oppose any foe" internationally.
I watched the speech in Boston, where I had been a spear-carrying volunteer in JFK's presidential-campaign headquarters. The then-president had pledged in his campaign "to get America moving again" with modern economic policies to generate investment and growth. There was a sense that, after the transitional Eisenhower years, the country and new president would do great things.
As a former campaign volunteer, I would spend St. Patrick's Day, 1961, two months after the inaugural, as a luncheon guest at the White House. The president gave me a green carnation from a silver bowl on his Oval Office desk. A sign over the office door, bordered in shamrocks, said "No Irish Need Apply." The Kennedy staff radiated energy and happy irreverence.
Part of the JFK promise came true. His new economic policies worked. Thousands of young Americans joined the Peace Corps or other volunteer-service efforts. But supporting any friend and opposing any foe got us involved in Vietnam, the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Cuban missile crisis, among other things. Ted Sorensen, JFK's principal speechwriter and substantive aide, told me later that "we came to the presidency thinking we knew everything and soon learned we knew little."
The next inaugural, in 1965, was that of President Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded to the office after Kennedy's November 1963 murder in Dallas. By then I was Vice President Humphrey's assistant and, as it happened, his representative to the inaugural committee. In that role I saw the unpleasant side of such festivities, as campaign donors and climbers tried to lay claim to scarce VIP tickets and invitations and sought federal appointments. The experience was exhausting and I was relieved to return to tasks of governance, which then included the passage of historic civil rights and Great Society legislation.
Over the years I've been pleased to see many leaders on the inaugural platform that I first knew as they got their political starts. This, for me, has underscored the strength and openness of our system. In 1992, a young campaign aide, Rahm Emanuel, called to ask if I would help the inaugural of President Clinton, who I first hired as an organizer in the 1972 McGovern campaign.
There on the platform Monday was Sen. John Kerry, whom I'd known as a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, as Massachusetts lieutenant governor and then as an earnest young senator coming to Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. There was Supreme Court Justice Steve Breyer, formerly a member of Sen. Ted Kennedy's Judiciary Committee staff. There was Vice President Joe Biden, who almost gave up his senate seat when, after his election to that body, his wife and a child were killed in an auto accident. And both Clintons. Some, including both Presidents Clinton and Obama, had in their early careers suffered losses which appeared likely to bury them.
In future years, they will be succeeded on the platform by young men and women who are only now beginning their journeys in politics and public service. We don't yet know their names or the circumstances which will bring them to power, but all reside under Richard Blanco's "One Sky." All are of and from us.
Our good wishes go out not only to President Obama, but to those who will follow him.