Historians Put Bush Inauguration in Perspective
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JIM LEHRER: Next, Ray Suarez looks at President Bush’s speech as history.
RAY SUAREZ: And we’ll get that insight from: Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the university of New Hampshire; Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and Henry Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.
Let’s start with this quote. "So it’s the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Professor Graff, has a president ever used the occasion of an inaugural to set the nation on such a large global assignment?
HENRY GRAFF: I have a very strong feeling that inaugural addresses are very special and they all have the same pattern. They are the voice of a man, and one day there will be women doing it, of men who are acting as chiefs of state, like the queen, and they are not heads of government on that day.
Can you imagine the president, his feelings when he sees the troops and the whole government yielding to his every wish and every moment on a day like this? And this is a day when we have a chief of state, and what he is saying is, "I see this as the soul of America" or "I want this to be the soul of America," and you and I know next week he’ll be the prime minister fighting with parliament.
RAY SUAREZ: So noble-sounding words but don’t take them too seriously?
HENRY GRAFF: Don’t take them too seriously.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Fitzpatrick?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: The answer to your question in my opinion is absolutely not. I think this is new. And if we had to find an equivalent kind of language, it seems to me it would be Truman’s message to Congress in which he articulated the Truman Doctrine in 1947 in the midst of the Greek civil war.
And at that point, he said that it would be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who were struggling against… to resist subjugation by armed minorities or by outside forces.
In this speech, what we heard was that it was going to be the policy of the United States to seek out these democratic movements to support it, not only to support free peoples that are struggling, to realize democracy, but to seek out those movements within countries all over the world in every nation. That is breathtaking and, in my view, historically in its scope.
RAY SUAREZ: One don’t take it too seriously. One breathtaking. Richard Norton Smith, you’re the tiebreaker.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, boy. You know, Professor Brzezinski referred to the speech as a sermon. There is a purpose for sermon, particularly on days like this. That’s why we call the presidency a bully pulpit.
Give you an historical analogy. In his second inaugural address 20 years ago today, Ronald Reagan talked about his dream of a world without nuclear weapons. Today President Bush talked about a world without tyranny.
By the end of the second term, there were nuclear weapons but one class of nuclear weapons had been eliminated for the first time in the history of the nuclear age. So we’re talking about setting lofty goals to inspire people. And then comes the hard work of actually trying to realize them.
I was also struck, though, by the contrast. You are right. This is a kind of Wilsonian view of American exceptionalism that we have an almost divine mission to plant the seeds of liberty as we define it around the world.
Richard Nixon’s second inaugural humbled by Vietnam, Richard Nixon said, "It is important that we understand both the necessity and the limitations of America’s role. The time has passed when American will presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs." That’s Richard Nixon; pretty conservative voice.
RAY SUAREZ: But a Vietnam War that’s winding down in 1961, in fact, John F. Kennedy says we’ll bear any burden, pay any price. The next decade is dominated by Vietnam.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But to defend, remember, to defend liberty wherever it is in danger, this president today is talking about extending liberty to all the world.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: And Ray, I think it’s very important the Kennedy speech is a good one for you to point to, because Kennedy was talking in that speech. He made the comment that he warned about those who sought power by riding the back of the tiger often found themselves inside.
And what he was talking about was the Soviet Union attempting to support wars of national liberation around the world to extend global communism. And he was saying, that is something that we will not tolerate.
And here we have these many years later a speech in which we’re talking about exporting worldwide democracy. And, you know, we believe in our system of government.
These are noble goals, but it’s interesting that that Cold War fear that what we were confronting was the specter of a nation that was aggressively seeking to export and to support wars of the national liberation, and that was a danger to us has now been flipped around.
HENRY GRAFF: It’s worth noticing that today, since the 20th Amendment, which limits the president to two terms, a man beginning his second term is a lame duck president and he will never have to defend what he said today with the public.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: He’ll have to defend it historically. He’ll have to defend it in the larger scheme of history.
HENRY GRAFF: That’s right.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Think how that shapes what a president says in a second inaugural address. He has to convince people he still has momentum, that he still has the energy, that he still has the ideas, that he still has the clout to matter. And that in a subtle way may actually act to inflate some of the rhetoric, some of the assertions that you hear.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Professor Fitzpatrick, you’ve said what makes inaugural addresses important is when they define a historical moment. Did this one?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It actually began by defining the last 50 years of American history. I can’t say that I would — you know, if I was grading it — give it an A-plus for narration, because it left out — it essentially reconstructed the history of the last 50 years as one in which we have essentially seen a shipwreck of communism occur after a period in which the United States was essentially standing watch.
Our freedom was being protected as we stood watch around the globe instead of the fact that we have actually quite aggressively sought to protect what was viewed as the best way of protecting our freedom through a policy of containment, that we fought an extended war in Indochina as the loss of 58,000 men to do that.
So the rhetoric of moral idealism has always been the framework in which American intervention has been rationalized, justified, explained. We’ve seen that today but I think on quite a grand scale.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Graff, as a public event, you found some interest in the treatment of the vice president. Tell us about that.
HENRY GRAFF: Well, I know that historically the vice president has not been that important. We know that the present vice president is a very important man in the shaping of the policies of this administration. Vice presidents are taken care of. They get their oath taken in the Senate building and they come down the steps to where the president is going to be sworn in. They come down…
RAY SUAREZ: Already sworn in.
HENRY GRAFF: Already sworn in. We know that presidents have difficulties with vice presidents. Very few vice presidents have been reelected. The present one has been reelected. Nixon was reelected.
Thomas Marshal, Wilson’s vice president was reelected. No other reelected vice presidents in American history. We know that Monroe rode to his inauguration with the vice president, who was a man from New York. We know that Truman rode with Alvin Barkley, but we have not seen the president or vice president together.
In fact, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t personally invite Truman to be his vice president. That was done in other ways. Vice presidents are people who are not worthy of the time and worthy of the interest.
RAY SUAREZ: So Cheney’s public oath on the west front was significant?
HENRY GRAFF: He, I think, getting him sworn in almost as well as he was sworn in himself, I see this as a very great salute to Cheney.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Richard Norton Smith, finally, before we go, did you hear anything today that people will see quoted, blown up in the side margins of the history books years from now?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Not to be evasive, we really won’t know that until this administration is over, perhaps for many years to come. If the extraordinarily, admittedly ambitious, to some people perhaps overreaching agenda that the president outlined today, not only overseas, we’re tending to overlook the domestic policy, which is as breathtaking in its own right, and foreshadows a very busy year ahead.
If half of that comes to pass, if a quarter of that comes to pass, then you can be sure people will be quoting this address for years to come.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, thanks to you all. Good to talk to you.