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Presidential Inaugurals: Historical Perspective

January 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And we get a longer view on presidential inaugurations from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them are historians Stephen Ambrose and Roger Wilkins. Welcome all of you on this big day. Haynes, you’ve covered every inaugural, I think, since John F. Kennedy’s.

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Sometimes Ulysses S. Grant, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us your sense of the historical significance of these day-long celebrations.

HAYNES JOHNSON: What Mark and Paul have just said is right. This is the opportunity once every four years that the country comes together. And it suspends the anger and the anguish of–politics into the background, but it’s there. We’ve only had–this is the 53rd inauguration in the President’s history.

It’s only the fourteenth time a President has given a second inaugural address. Think about that. That’s not very much in a country this long. So you have these–and the ones that stand out, of course, that really ring the bell, stir the American nations, seize the moment, John F. Kennedy, my first one is maybe because I was young, but it was terribly stirring to be there and hear that ask not what your country can do for you, what you can do for your country, which was tremendous. I mean, this is a great moment. Roosevelt we see on the screen.

The only thing you have to fear is fear, itself. Those are great moments. The rest, as Paul and Mark said, are forgettable, but the moment’s not. It’s the chance the country comes together.

MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Ambrose, do you agree that speeches have often been, as I think Mark put it, eminently forgettable?

STEPHEN AMBROSE, Presidential Historian: No, I really don’t. There have been some awfully good ones. I mean, some of this stuff is chiseled with malice toward none. It’s not, as Haynes just said. A couple of brief ones that I would remind people of, Jimmy Carter turning to Gerry Ford and thanking him for what he had done to bind up the nation’s wounds. That was terrific peace. And Gerry Ford, our own national nightmare is over. I mean, this is not forgettable stuff.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: What’s so interesting, it seems to me, about inaugural day is that in some ways the presidency is our democratic kingship. So there is more ritual on this day than almost any other time in our political history. And I think it’s important for the country. I mean, at the very beginning there were huge arguments about how much ritual we wanted.

It was said that the federalists thought that George Washington would come in with a golden suit so he could look like a king on six white horses, but finally the Republicans talked him out of that. And he wore a brown suit with golden buttons on four creme-colored horses. It was said that he should be His Mightiness or His Highness, but he was called Mr. President.

Then when Thomas Jefferson gets in, he decides to get rid of all that stuff, and he walked through his inaugural ceremony. And we’ve seen that swing–very plainly dressed–and we’ve seen that swing back and forth over time. When Andrew Jackson came in, it was a popular ceremony, so popular that all his frontiersmen were in the White House smashing furniture until they finally put a keg on the lawn, so they went back outside.

And then you saw John Kennedy restore the pomp and circumstance, the tails, the top hat. And then you saw Carter get rid of it again by walking, and then you saw Reagan bring it back. So always we see that mixture between this is a popularly elected person, but he’s also got a little glitter behind him because he is our king, if we ever had one.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you think they are, Michael, more a reflection of the tone of an inauguration, more reflection of the times or of the man, always been a man, of course, being inaugurated?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, it’s at times of real crisis that give the opportunity for a great inaugural address. Abraham Lincoln, 1865, I think some of have mentioned already. A lot of people in the United States were waiting for the end of the Civil War and for a signal from Lincoln, what kind of peace he intended to provide over, and that’s why with malice toward none that phrase was not only elegant, but it really told us something.

The same thing in 1933. Franklin Roosevelt, after a very muddy campaign, during which he was called the Prince of Pap, gave the nation the idea that he was going to initiate serious social reforms in the New Deal. Bill Clinton after the zigs and zags of the first term I think can use this opportunity today to tell us what kind of a President he will be in the second term. That could be very different from some of the Clintons we’ve seen before.

MARGARET WARNER: Your thoughts, Roger Wilkins, on great speeches and how predictive they’ve been about where the President wanted to lead the country.

ROGER WILKINS, Historian: Well, on this day I think the two inaugurals, particularly the first one that Doris mentioned, the President in Washington making it up as he went along, and I think that one of the things we forget about Washington’s greatness is that he created the presidency.

Nobody knew how to do it. The world thought that a country couldn’t get along without a king and this little place would fall apart. And it was his character and his sense of duty to the country that really made the Presidency work.

The other inaugural I think of on this day, Martin King’s birthday, is Hoover’s inaugural in 1929, which occurred at about the time of King’s birth. King and I were both, we were almost contemporaries, and we are contemporaries, and we were born in segregation in this country.

And on a day like this when we reflect about what it’s about to be an American, to think that less than years ago most African-Americans were in the South, most of them in poverty, in semi-slavery, the rest of African-Americans were treated as, as second class citizens under the Constitution by customs and by law.

And although we have a long way to go, my God, is the country a different place from the day when King was inaugurated. And whatever you may think of Bill Clinton, the notion that he begins this day at a black church, sure, it’s symbolism, sure, it helps him, but it is also real, and it means something. And it’s quite moving.

MARGARET WARNER: So it is very much–tell us a lot about the times we live in.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the words that we remember–we remember–I think this is partly what Michael was saying, because action followed, or substance followed. When Thomas Jefferson said the famous phrase, “We are all federalists. We are all Republicans,” it came after a really dirty campaign where the federalists said if the Republicans ever get in, there will be rape, there will be adultery, there will be theft in the land. And he’s saying we’ve got to stop this.

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead, Doris.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: So, in other words, I think the words have to be followed by substance and action. When you think of Roosevelt’s great inaugural in ‘33, it’s because when he said there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, it was followed by a program of action that helped to give hope during the Depression.

Even the ask not country business that JFK said, if there hadn’t been the Peace Corps, if there hadn’t been Vista, if there hadn’t been kids getting involved in the Civil Rights movement, there would have just been words. So the words become remember in history if something in the country makes them come to life. They’re just words, otherwise. 

STEPHEN AMBROSE: That cuts both ways, though. Remember, Kennedy also said in that inaugural we will pay any price and we will bear any burdens, this much we promise and more. And that was just so overblown, and we found out that there are limits to what we’ll pay in Vietnam and so it cuts both ways. 

ROGER WILKINS: He did pay an enormous price. The fact is those words did mark Kennedy for all the modern sense he conveyed as a very typical cold warrior who was prepared to pay the price, and that’s how he got into Vietnam. 

HAYNES JOHNSON: And the trumpets in the background of that speech and the trumpets of Vietnam, as Steve Ambrose said, but there’s something else we watch in those pictures of the capitol. This is the place it always happens. Washington came in on a barge I think in New York Harbor, down there for his first, it was New York City. All the others have been in this one place, and in television particularly, we all focused for one moment on that place. 

All the inaugurations through up to Reagan were on the East front. When you talk about the stadium in the background, now they had this even grander view, Reagan’s television age, the West front looking across the monuments in the West. That’s what they should have had in the beginning, I think. It’s a marvelous vista. 

MARGARET WARNER: This is a re-inaugural, of course. Michael, how often have those been memorable? I mean, aren’t they new beginnings, or is it just a momentary day of ritual, and you go right back historically to the same old problems? 

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: If you give me a choice of A or B, usually B, Margaret. We may see B today. I hope not. But the times when it has not been the case have been where there was a big issue pending, such as the Civil War in 1865, or even in 1937, when people were wondering whether Roosevelt would keep up the momentum of the New Deal. You look at a case like Ronald Reagan 1985. Not many people were wondering whether Reagan would be conservative or liberal in his second term or really change very much from his priorities. 

So there was not really the opportunity for a great speech or great event because not too much change in the man and also not a moment of crisis. One thing that’s true of these inaugurations nowadays is that here in the 90’s, when the first years after the imperial presidency, after the Cold War, during the Cold War and during the strong presidency for most of this century, most second term Presidents still had some power.

They were running the nation in a very hostile world. Now, Bill Clinton is a lame duck, doesn’t have that kind of power. We could be seeing a very interesting experiment, which is a President trying to conserve his power while not being able to run again in a period that makes it very difficult for him. 

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s leave it there for now, and back to Jim. We’ll be back.