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.
Were we all supposed to thrill to the wadding of boilerplate that surrounded such gaucheries yesterday? In the end, it all came to sound like one more PowerPoint presentation rather than a presidential Inaugural, with pol-speak extending as far as the national debt.
But I did cheer at the end. In relief. It was probably a common enough reaction from coast to bored coast. And the cheers as it ended were as sincere as those that once greeted a young governor of Arkansas as he reached the most awaited words of his first address to a great national convention: "In conclusion...." More welcome words have seldom been uttered in a public address.
As all the transient foofaraw of the inauguration proceeded, I could only hold fast to this thought: There is still goodness in this country, there is still resolve, and there is still an American Spirit. And it will yet be summoned and felt, called out and be responded to. But for now it still waits to be conjured up.
To use a phrase I've often repeated to myself in the midst of some speech by a self-absorbed politician that threatens never to end, a phrase from Scott Fitzgeralds's masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby": "He had come a long way ... and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."