TOPICS > Politics

Reaction to President Clinton’s Inaugural Address

January 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now back here to the studio, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot, for analysis of what the President said and the way he said it. Mark is a syndicated columnist. Paul is a Wall Street Journal columnist. Mark, what do you think of the speech?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, it’s interesting. The second inaugural speech is a speech writer’s nightmare because you can’t use the “new” the same way. It isn’t a new celebration of a different direction for the country. You have to take continuity and sort of make it into a form of renewal, which I thought the President obviously tried to do in this speech. I thought the strongest section of the speech for the President was when he talked about racial reconciliation.

I think if there’s one theme of this presidency where he is consistently convincing and persuasive is when he does as a son of Arkansas who grew up in a state where Orville Faubus in Little Rock Central High School was such a focal point of the racial tensions in this country, I think that’s where Bill Clinton is most effective and most compelling. And I thought he was in this speech.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, your overview of the speech.

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: What was striking to me was the contrast with his speech four years ago when he called for bold, persistent experimentation in Washington, in government. This time there was a real modesty about his ambitions for government. He said we’ve resolved a great debate over government. Government’s not the problem. It’s not the solution. We are the solution. And he talked a lot about what average citizens, what ordinary Americans can do without relying on Washington–really a large contrast. The other thing about the speech–I liked it a lot actually–but the thing that was–he had going in with the burden of the times, the burden of placid times. The one–it’s hard to have ringing phrases and real drama when things are going pretty well, which they are.

JIM LEHRER: The phrase that I wrote down was the nation of new promise, and he said new promise many times. Did that ring with you, as well, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It did. It seemed like he was trying out new promise and the new century. I guess the one that hit me, Jim, was one nation, one people with one common destiny or not, and I thought again that’s where he was.

JIM LEHRER: And you mentioned the racial thing. This also ties into what Paul was saying, that the bully pulpit on that issue is something that Bill Clinton does very well and that any President, if he really gets with it, can make tremendous strides, rather than governmental programs.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. And it seems that in a second term, which are notoriously historically poor, a President often has to rely on that bully pulpit more than anything else, particularly in–with a Congress of the other party. And the President seems very much to be saying with this speech he intends to do that.

MARK SHIELDS: There was a little rhetorical triangulation, however, in this speech in which was a strategy that the President’s campaign for 1996 so successfully adopted. He said government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. I mean, it’s sort–it was sort of to each side. I mean, Ronald Reagan came in in 1981 and said government we found out is the problem. And the liberals for a long time had felt whether they stated it obliquely or directly that government was the solution. And he is apparently articulating or at least prophesying a third way.

PAUL GIGOT: He’s setting himself up, I think, to be the arbiter of how much government we should have. He’s saying I’m the one who can–that can moderate that. I think he’s probably optimistic when he said our debate over government is resolved. I think that will go on for the next four years.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to Margaret Warner for some further perspectives on the President’s speech. Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim. And with me once again are Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Haynes Johnson, Stephen Ambrose, and Roger Wilkins. Michael, is this one we’re going to remember in the pantheon of great speeches, great inaugurals?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think you’re setting a very high standard, Margaret. We don’t remember too many second term addresses. The ones we do remember are the President who was re-inaugurated, took some risks, and made some enemies. Lincoln in 1865, we’ve been talking about it all this morning, when he said that he intended to wage a peace with malice towards none, he made an enemy of a lot of people who wanted really to be very harsh with a vanquished self. FDR 1937, when he said I see a third of a nation ill housed, he was saying he wasn’t going to give up the New Deal, he was going to continue to fight against the forces who wanted to stop what he had been doing. Bill Clinton didn’t do that today. And the up side of that is it promotes the kind of bipartisanship and reconciliation that he’s been talking about but the down side may be that as Lincoln said in another context, that this address will be little noted, nor long remembered.

MARGARET WARNER: What struck you, Stephen Ambrose, about the speech?

STEPHEN AMBROSE, Historian: I thought it was an awful lot of glittering generalities. I thought it was an army of populist phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Maybe you should have written it.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: I also was struck by his emphasis on the year 2000, obviously, and was reminded of Nixon’s second inaugural. When he talked about the spirit of ‘76–and Nixon must after being president for the 200th birthday–this President–

MARGARET WARNER: This was in 1973, of course, he did this.

STEPHEN AMBROSE: But you know, there’s this eerie resemblance between January of 1973 and January of 1997. Not just the reelected President with the other party holding the Congress, but this guy’s got a lot of problems. And tomorrow morning they start. And that part of the speech I thought was effective for him, let’s look forward to the year 2000; let’s skip ‘97, ‘98, ‘99. (laughter among group)

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I thought the structure of going back to the past and talking about where the promise of America came from was a good idea. I also think it was a good idea to talk about the idea that in this new land we will do all these various things. In fact, that’s a pretty common thing in inaugurals. There was a phrase in Nixon’s that said, I see an America where blank-blank-blank. And then they traced it back to Roosevelt’s inaugural, where he said, I see an America where blank-blank-blank. Then they went back to Roosevelt’s speech writer and said, where did you get that phrase, and he said I got it from Ingersoll in 1876. So I think it’s common to paint a portrait of the future. And I like the fact that he drew on history.

We always keep claiming that he should do that more because it makes us feel part of a nation. I think the one thing that made it too general was that he’s decided, evidently, to split this general speech and then his State of the Union will be programmatic. But to make a real emotional feeling about where we’ve come from and where we’re going, you need the substance there. You need to feel what it is he’s saying to show where his commitments are. If you talk about race in general, it’s one thing. If you talk about affirmative action, you talk about what I’m going to do to make it come, then you make the enemies, but then you also make your friends.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you find it compelling, Roger?

ROGER WILKINS, Presidential Historian: I found things in it to like. When he said–called for the citizens of the United States to take more responsibility for making the country better, that’s what I tell my students all the time; don’t just leave it to Bill or Joe. It’s your country. This is what democracy means. It wasn’t soaring; it wasn’t ringing; but it was right. Similarly, when he said we all must assume personal responsibility, I personally love that because he’s been preaching for the last four years. They’ve got people that’ll take personal responsibility as if other people didn’t have to.

This time he said everybody has to do it. On race, however, there’s a real problem because you can call for reconciliation and good feeling. Well, we can all have good feeling across racial lines. We’re lucky people. The issue is the black poor. And when you come to that, you can’t do glittering generalities. You have to pay the political coin of the realm. And up to this point, although Clinton’s terrific in black churches, he hasn’t really proved that he’s willing to pay the coin to say I’m willing to make enemies to fight for this. That remains to be seen.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you feel, Haynes, about his call for racial reconciliation and what he really called issues of the human heart, his emphasis on that?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: I think any time a President of the United States talks about race, particularly as the unresolved question, that’s great. We ought to celebrate it. It’s important to all that. And I agree with what Roger’s talking about. You have to go deeper than that and so forth. But that was very important. I think the dark impulses, the hatred, those are things a President only uniquely can speak to the country about. I had a different view about the speech. I was struck by–I made notes here–it was a 22-minute speech.

Twenty-three times he used the word “new,” over and over and over again–four times in the first three sentences–and then toward the end here again a new vision of government, a new sense of responsibility, a new spirit of community, a new land, a new promise, and to a point where I sort of finally almost didn’t write down any more. And I just think stylistically that wasn’t effective.

MARGARET WARNER: As if he was trying to get over the problem that Mark outlined for second–


MARGARET WARNER: –inaugurals.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And it is a problem for second inaugurals. There’s no crisis in the country. We’re not at war. We’re not at times of Lincolnesque crisis in the country or Vietnam tragedies, or impeachments looming, although in the background you say maybe there will be; I don’t know. But I do think that there was in this speech–I liked it when he talked about the petty bickering. And I think that probably will be most remembered out of this speech at all, the divisions in the country. And when he said that, but it was just one phrase, but I think that was–drew by far the most applause from the people there. Otherwise, there was a sort of somber quality to the speech, and it seemed to be not uplifting in that sense. I don’t think it’ll be chiseled, as Steve Ambrose said of other speeches, in marble, in history, history’s hall.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve been trying to get in.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My guess is that what he would like to be noticed is what he said about the role of government. And this is this dialogue that really has gone throughout American history, but for particularly during Bill Clinton’s lifetime, go back to 1961, ask not what your country can do for you, as Kennedy said. Then 1973, we remember less what Nixon said in his second inaugural. Our response to Kennedy, each of us should ask not what government will do for me but what I will do for myself, and then you have Reagan in ‘81 saying, government is the problem. Clinton positions himself as having, as sort of being the crowning person on this whole dialogue back to 1961 and gives him some greater historical importance.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you find that part compelling?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Sort of. I mean, I think there is something about the general atmosphere in Washington right now that the public as a whole is just fed up with, which is the extreme partisanship and the petty bickering that he talked about. And I think that’s why he touched a chord. But to go back to what Michael said earlier, there’s another kind of argument that’s very healthy in democracy. It’s not as if argument is not a good thing in democracy. And I would like it if he had added to that. But yet, there are serious debates for us to have. And I want us to fight those debates, and I’ll be on the side of the ordinary person against privilege. I will be on the side of the ordinary person against money. I mean, that’s the old-fashioned fighter. And I think if he had added that to the other side, it would have been fabulous.

ROGER WILKINS: There’s one thing about the speech that it seems to me takes–made that impossible. The White House let us know how hard he worked on the speech without how many people. Lincoln wrote the second inaugural by himself. Martin King wrote the speech that he made at the Lincoln Memorial by himself. These speeches came out of the experiences and the convictions of an individual–

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: That’s a great line.

ROGER WILKINS: –in the individual’s moment at that time. This speech had the feel of a committee. And I think that’s why we don’t feel lifted.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Stephen Ambrose, this new land that he talked about, or the promise of the new land and that rosy picture, is that typical of inaugural speeches? I mean, do they tend to paint such a rosy picture of the future?

STEPHEN AMBROSE: It depends on the times. Lincoln certainly wasn’t at the first inaugural. Roosevelt wasn’t in any of the first three. The fourth one he was. It just depends on the time. I’d like just to end my part by saying I just find this so depressing. Here we’ve got a Speaker of the House who has just pled guilty to these–I mean, it’s just awful–and we’ve got a President that we’re inaugurating who is under all this investigation and the scandals and I’m–I’m sorry. It ought to be an upbeat day, but I can’t be upbeat today.

MARGARET WARNER: And no mention, there was no even elusion to–


MARGARET WARNER: –to clouds or problems.

HAYNES JOHNSON: That’s why I think again it’s a repeat. When he did talk about the petty bickering and the partnership and the country didn’t elect a Republican Congress and a Democratic President. They want us to get on. I think that’s what the country wants. I wish he had gone on with that and said, as Doris said, and here’s what I’m going to try to do about that. He didn’t do that. But I think talking about it was an important thing for the reasons that Steve says. There is that backdrop to this inauguration that’s different from others. There’s this sense of disgust with the way the system’s working and people do feel cynical, and this one didn’t give you a tremendous lift, I don’t think.

ROGER WILKINS: But the problem, I think the people do want that. I think that’s why his polls numbers are so high–


ROGER WILKINS: –because people say the people want to go forward. The problem is that when he says it and says we want to stop the bickering, everybody knows that Ken Starr is sitting in the background and on the other side–

STEPHEN AMBROSE: He has a personal interest in this.

ROGER WILKINS: Right. And it’s hard to be convincing on that. I think he probably wants us to stop the bickering, not just for himself, but I think he understands that the only way he can have a successful second term is that way.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. All of you, we’re going to have to leave it there, but thank you all five very much.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, and before we go, what about Steve Ambrose’s point, do you feel this was an upbeat ritual that we all witnessed this morning, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. I know it’s fashionable right now to talk about this terrible torpor and pessimism and all the rest of it. I mean, every test of public opinion belies that. Americans are more upbeat about their own future, about the future of the country, than they have been any time really since Ronald Reagan’s heyday. And I think there is–people are tired; they’re fatigued; they’re angry with the bickering and all the rest of it. But at the same time, you know, Americans, we hate gridlock but we love divided government. And we keep voting that way. So we seem to know what we’re doing. And, you know, I think there’s no question–I thought it was rather touching that on the same day there’s Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, who’s just been through the dark travels of his own soul publicly this past 72 hours up there with the President smiling. I mean, it does say that democracy and its continuity, its survival, its reaffirmation takes precedence over bruised feelings right now.


PAUL GIGOT: I’m going to disagree with the distinguished historian as well. I thought the speech was appropriate in its modesty. I don’t think people want a new giant agenda out of Washington. And Bill Clinton was saying there’s going to be after the hurly burly of my first term, there’s going to be some order and some gradualness here. And I think he was optimistic, and he looked to the future, and it’s true that grasping for the Internet is not the same thing as ending a war, or raising us out of some economic mire, but those are the times we live in.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing, Jim, and that is Miller Williams’ poem, I thought, in the annals of presidential poems, stood by itself. I just thought it was superb.

JIM LEHRER: He delivered it beautifully too.


JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.