Inauguration 2013: Obama Should Not Make the Speech Mistakes These Other Presidents Made
This article is an installment in an eleven-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.
William McKinley (March 4, 1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (March 4, 1905)
The presidential election of 1900 had been a clear-cut referendum on the question of whether America should pursue an imperialist foreign policy. After entering the United States into the Spanish-American War and thereby conquering new territories across the globe, President William McKinley had fundamentally altered our nation's relationship with the rest of the world. Gone were the days when Americans took pride in their steadfast adherence to George Washington's axiom about avoiding "foreign entanglements." Instead it was up to the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, to denounce McKinley's conquests of Cuba and the Philippines. Although Bryan lost, the campaign was at least able to force McKinley to grossly distort his foreign policy record during his second inaugural:
Four years ago we stood on the brink of war without the people knowing it and without any preparation or effort at preparation for the impending peril. I did all that in honor could be done to avert the war, but without avail. It became inevitable; and the Congress at its first regular session, without party division, provided money in anticipation of the crisis and in preparation to meet it. It came. The result was signally favorable to American arms and in the highest degree honorable to the Government. It imposed upon us obligations from which we cannot escape and from which it would be dishonorable to seek escape. We are now at peace with the world, and it is my fervent prayer that if differences arise between us and other powers they may be settled by peaceful arbitration and that hereafter we may be spared the horrors of war.
If nothing else, McKinley's second inaugural reminds us that ... for all of the great changes wrought in the world between 1901 and 2013 ... the language of political dishonesty has remained remarkably constant.
Theodore Roosevelt's re-election was notable in several ways. Although he was the fifth vice president to take over the presidency due to the death of his predecessor, he was the first to be elected to a term of his own. More importantly, he had spent the three years prior to the 1904 election launching the Progressive Era and thereby transforming the relationship between the federal government and the American people, from breaking up corporate trusts and conserving millions of acres of wilderness to advocating economic regulation and protecting labor rights. In light of this impressive record and Roosevelt's own reputation for oratorical bombast, one might have expected his inaugural address to be colorful and inspiring. Instead it lands with a thud, as foreshadowed by its painfully platitudinous introduction:
My fellow-citizens, no people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of Good who has blessed us with the conditions which have enabled us to achieve so large a measure of well-being and of happiness. To us as a people it has been granted to lay the foundations of our national life in a new continent. We are the heirs of the ages, and yet we have had to pay few of the penalties which in old countries are exacted by the dead hand of a bygone civilization. We have not been obliged to fight for our existence against any alien race; and yet our life has called for the vigor and effort without which the manlier and hardier virtues wither away. Under such conditions it would be our own fault if we failed; and the success which we have had in the past, the success which we confidently believe the future will bring, should cause in us no feeling of vainglory, but rather a deep and abiding realization of all which life has offered us; a full acknowledgment of the responsibility which is ours; and a fixed determination to show that under a free government a mighty people can thrive best, alike as regards the things of the body and the things of the soul.
While far from the worse inaugural address ever delivered, Roosevelt's is certainly the most disappointing.