On Jan. 20, 2005, President George W. Bush will be sworn in as only the 16th president in the history of the United States to serve two or more terms. This week we are celebrating a quadrennial tradition of peaceful transition from one government to the next - something about which many countries even today can only dream. This transition has been accomplished peacefully for so long that we almost take for granted how truly remarkable this event really is.
Indeed, today when we think of the inauguration, thoughts of civil war, violence or bloodshed seem the farthest things from our mind. Instead, we tend to focus on the inaugural address or the pomp and circumstance associated with the parade, balls and parties that have become an integral part of inaugural week in our nation's capital.
In fact, if we ask most people to recount their favorite inaugural moment, either in their lifetimes or from their history classes, most will recall John F. Kennedy challenging a nation to service: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Historians tend to focus on Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in the closing days of the Civil War, when he tried to heal a nation, reaching out to the South as he spoke: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." I still get chills when I read these words every time I visit the Lincoln memorial on the mall in our nation's capital where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and directly in view from where Bush will speak Thursday.
It has often been said that great moments make great speeches. That was certainly the case for Lincoln, who rose to the occasion and defined the moment. If nothing else, Bush's first term was marked by momentous events, some within his control, but more often events that he was forced to confront. As William Shakespeare once observed, "Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." This president leads a nation at a perilous time in our history, and the challenge of his address will be to seize this moment and make it his own.
If we inquire from whom the president may draw inspiration, I believe it would be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fourth inaugural address during the last year of World War II, when he not only captured the moment but also looked forward to a world our nation would help forge in the years and generations to come. It was a short, but poignant address, part of which stated:
"Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy. And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons - at a fearful cost - and we shall profit by them. We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that 'The only way to have a friend is to be one.'"
Were these words spoken by Bush today, they would make as much sense in our time as they did to Americans listening to Roosevelt in 1945.
The president's inaugural address is important - and difficult - because each president simultaneously seeks to reach into our past to paint a picture of the American experience for continuity, reach into his soul to capture the spirit of our time and reach for the horizon to describe an America that has yet to come. Yet the inaugural address still is not the most significant event of the day.
The most important event this week will be when Bush places his hand on the Bible and takes that solemn oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will try to the best of my ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." This is the only constitutionally mandated act of the day. To this phrase George Washington added "so help me God," which has become part of the traditional oath.
That solemn oath, taken on the Bible, is the thread that unites presidents past and present.
It reminds us of the dignity of the office and serves as a gentle warning that while the president serves at the pleasure of the people, he ultimately must answer to a higher authority.