WASHINGTON -- Wondering if his publisher liked the manuscript of "Les Miserables," Victor Hugo sent a terse note: "?" His publisher replied as tersely: "!" That was the nation's response to Barack Obama's inaugural address, even though -- or perhaps because -- one of his themes, delicately implied, was that Americans do not just have a problem, they are a problem.
"The time has come," he said pointedly, "to set aside childish things." Things, presumably, such as the pandemic indiscipline that has produced a nation of households as overleveraged as is the government from which the householders insistently demand more goods and services than they are willing to pay for. "We remain," the president said, "a young nation." Which, even if true, would be no excuse for childishness. And it is not true. The United States is older, as a national polity, than Germany or Italy, among many others.
Obama's first words -- "I stand here today humbled by the task before us" -- echoed the first paragraph of the first inaugural address. George Washington, although elected unanimously by the Electoral College, confessed "anxieties" and adopted the tone of a servant "called" to crushing duties:
"The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."
The presidency that awed Washington -- or so he said -- was soft wax on which he could leave any impress he wanted. But because of his unchallengeable pre-eminence, and because many Americans considered executive power a standing temptation to monarchical abuses, Washington, who could have been akin to a king, was almost histrionically humble.