To lead this country to ultimate “security” and eternal greatness, our presidents must–so goes the common wisdom–be ever strong and confident. They must, in fact, sing hymns to our strength, as well as to our unquestioned mission or calling in the world. In the first moments of a presidency, they must summon Americans to do great things, as befits a great power, not just on the national, but on the planetary stage.
Our early presidents disagreed. In his first inaugural paragraph, Washington apologized for his inadequacies. In fact, in their first words, our early presidents tended to emphasize the limits of what any leader could do and bring up their “trepidations” about the challenges that lay ahead of them. This tradition is, of course, long gone.
Sick of the imperial hubris of these last years and acting on an urge, I recently stepped into the shoes of Barack Obama’s speechwriter, and wrote our new president an inaugural address for Tuesday. I wanted it to emphasize the strength that lies in modesty, in not playing the over-armed bully. Admittedly, what follows is an address which no American president would probably care to give, centering as it does on an apology. If, however, we want to take a shot at starting anew, these last terrible years have to be acknowledged, which means apologizing for the damage the Bush administration did to our country, to the world, and undoubtedly to the future. We need to apologize, among other things, for having thought so much about our own immediate “safety” and “security” (as well as gain), and so little about the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. It’s now well past time to leave behind the imperial fantasies of the Bush era and join a world in trouble–and there’s no better day to begin than on January 20, 2009.
In a Dark Valley
Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address
In my lifetime, presidents have regularly come before you, the American people, proclaiming new dawns or hailing this country as a shining city upon a hill, an example to the rest of the world. But on this cold, wintry day, I hardly need tell you that we seem to have joined much of the rest of the world in an increasingly shadowy, sunless valley.
We–not just we Americans but all of us–are living in a world in peril, one in which we have far more to fear than fear itself. And don’t imagine, having just taken the oath of office on the Bible Abraham Lincoln laid his hand on in an earlier moment of national crisis, that I don’t have my own fears about the task ahead. I can’t help but worry whether my abilities are up to challenges, which would surely have been daunting even to a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt.
Nonetheless, you elected me. You have, I know, invested your hopes in me in these trying times. And fortunately, I sense that you are at my side now and will, I hope, remain there, encouraging and criticizing, praising or chiding as you see fit, through the worst and, with luck, the best of times. I’m thankful for that. Without your support, your wisdom, what could I hope to accomplish? We–and in this presidency, when I use that word, I will mean you and me, not the royal “we” to which American presidents have become far too attached–we can, I think, hope to accomplish much, but only if we’re honest with ourselves.