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.
This nation was founded in the immodest modesty of experimentation by men who hoped for much but were aware that they did not always know what might work. They were ready to falter, to fall on their faces, to fail and yet not to quit. We–you and I–must be willing to do the same. In this difficult moment, we must be willing to acknowledge our limits, to admit our mistakes and to welcome all others who care to join us, or want us to join them, on the path of experimentation in a needy world.
Let me, then, start–not simply as your new president but as a human being, a proud American and the father of two children who deserve a better future, not a thoroughly degraded world–with two simple words: I’m sorry.
In the last eight years, we Americans have in no way lived up to our better natures. Our country has, in fact, repeatedly caused grievous damage to others and to ourselves. The mistakes, the misguided policies, have been legion. We–you and I–must do our best to correct them and make amends. For Americans, at home and abroad, there must be a better way.
The kidnapping of people off the streets of global cities, the disappearing of suspects who have no chance to face judge or jury, the torture, abuse and killing of prisoners–these are wounds inflicted on the world and on ourselves. There must be a better way.
Shock-and-awe assaults on other nations, whether by ourselves or allies we’ve green-lighted, lead–it should be clear enough by now–to horrors beyond measure visited on civilians. There must be a better way.
The repeated firing of missiles at, and the bombing of, villages halfway across the globe, the repeated killing of innocent farm families while on missions to protect ourselves, constitutes a global war for terror, not against it. There must be a better way.
The twisting of our Constitution into whatever shape a president (and his lawyers) find useful or power-enhancing constitutes a body blow to this nation. There must be a better way.
The offering of vast bailouts, without strings or oversight, to the most profligate and greediest among us, while ignoring the daily suffering of ordinary Americans inflicts grievous harm on our society. There must be a better way.
The turning of our government–your government–into a surveillance state, a spy society, meant to eternally watch you, cannot represent the fulfillment of the dreams of Washington or Jefferson. There must be a better way.
Transforming the heavens into a storage depot for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels is like passing a death sentence on humanity. There must be a better way.
Considering war and military action the solution of first, not last, resort whenever a difficult or painful problem arises represents a disastrous path. There must be a better way.
Of all times, this is no time to be at war. For our recent wars, all of us have paid a heavy price, not just in lives that should never have been lost but in distraction from what truly matters.
We were once proudly a can do nation. For the last eight years, we have been a can’t do nation, incapable of rebuilding great cities or small towns, replacing failing bridges or shoring up our systems of levees. And yet we’ve had the presumption to believe that we, who had lost the knack for rebuilding at home, had a special ability to rebuild other societies far from home. All of this has to end now. We need to do better.
Everywhere on this shaky planet people feel insecure and unsafe–and we have only sharpened such feelings in these last years. To feel secure and safe should be the most basic of rights. It is, however, far past time for us to give the very idea of security new meaning. Yes, we must protect ourselves. Any country must do that for its citizens, but you, the American people, must also hear a truth that has not been said in these last eight years. It is a fantasy to believe that, in the long run, we can make ourselves secure to the detriment of everyone else. On that path lies only insecurity for all. We need to do better.
In policy terms, tomorrow is the day to roll up our sleeves and begin, but today I want to say to you: Don’t despair. Yes, the news is grim. Yes, as Americans and as citizens of this world we should know our limits and the increasingly apparent limits of our small planet, but we should also dream, and struggle, and plan and innovate.
I repeated one phrase many times during the long presidential campaign, and I emphatically repeat it today: Yes, we can!
And when we do, we have to reach out to the world with our discoveries and ideas, but without the sense that those discoveries, those ideas, are the be-all and end-all. We have to learn how to listen as well as teach.
Our planet will either be an ark, which will carry us, and our children and grandchildren, through time and space, or it will be our grave. This is a stark choice that seems no choice at all. But believe me, to choose the ark, not the grave, is the hardest thing of all. Nonetheless, may that be the choice to which we Americans consecrate ourselves on this day and in all the days to come.
Thank you and God bless us all.