Alex Massie Alex Massie

Inauguration Rules

The best article I’ve read on Presidential Inaugurations remains Ted Widmer’s piece in the American Scholar from 2005. The entire thing is a treat but he handily summarises the essential rules of Inauguration Speeches as:

1. I am not worthy of this great honor. 2. But I congratulate the people that they elected me. 3. Now we must all come together, even those of us who really hate each other. 4. I love the Constitution, the Union, and George Washington. 5. I will work against bad threats. 6. I will work for good things. 7. We must avoid entangling alliances. 8. America’s strength = democracy. 9. Democracy’s strength = America. 10. Thanks, God.

He concludes:

Given how venerable the inaugural tradition is, it is becoming more difficult to claim, as so many presidents have, that we are a very young country. We are more like an aging movie star who needs a couple extra minutes to apply her makeup. “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” as Bette Davis said. But age has its compensations, not the least of which is that our history just keeps getting better. The inaugural ceremony is already crowded enough, but for me there will be forty-two other presidents on the platform, adding their voices to the sounds of the ceremony and straining to “harmonize in the ancient music,” to use Seward’s discarded phrase. Surely it does no harm to pause for a moment and listen to what they have to say, still speaking to us faintly over the din of the republic.

True enough. And now, of course, it is Barack Obama’s turn. For myself, I could have done without the comparisons with Abraham Lincoln, for all that they both made the journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington DC and for all that, in a sense, Obama’s presidency completes a circle begun by the Great Emancipator. But regardless of the symbolism, there’s something a little unseemly about it too.

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