Presidential inaugurations are milestones in American politics and even history. And they may indicate a lot more than how far we have come and may have to go. To borrow a phrase from a president named Lincoln, they may tell us where we are and whither we are tending. They can mark crisis or continuity, triumph or tragedy. Or, like yesterday's, nothing in particular.
Lines from some inaugurals still speak to us. Powerfully.
After the low, fierce, ugly campaign of 1800, which unfortunately set something of a precedent in American politics, the new president, Thomas Jefferson, informed the still young and uncertain republic: "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."
Other inaugural addresses, one delivered as war and chaos were hanging over the country's head, would prove even more memorable.
Abraham Lincoln, just sworn in as the president of an already divided Union, would end with a final plea: "I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." A month later, the first shells would be fired at Fort Sumter.
In the next century, in the midst of the greatest economic depression in American history, which would come to be known as The Depression, and as still another world war was brewing overseas, the new, ever-buoyant president assured his fellow citizens that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." And that this country with its institutions would endure as it has endured. It did.
The greatest of inaugural addresses, a work of literature and prophecy as well as history and politics, has to be Lincoln's Second Inaugural, delivered "with malice toward none, with charity for all...." It is still not only quoted but revered. I don't think Barack Obama's Second Inaugural will be.
I made myself listen to every word -- it's my job -- and found it not even bad enough to be interesting. How describe it? It was sloshed all about like a vast sea of platitudes broken only occasionally not by anything exciting but only excruciating. Did our just re-inaugurated president really speak of Peace in Our Time, or can I have only imagined that tribute, conscious or unconscious, to the poor spirit of Neville Chamberlain? I hope I only imagined it, but I fear he actually said it.