Presidential proclamations are of dubious distinction in these days of permanent campaigning by the president and his hyper-politicized staff. What were once the solemn pronouncements of the executive have become little more than super-charged press releases.
George Bush issued more than 100 proclamations in the first ten months of the year, including one honoring National Safe Boating Week and another for Dutch-American Friendship Day. There was one recognizing National Homeownership Month, which conveniently preceded the mortgage crisis that has raised the prospect of as many as two million America families losing their domiciles. There was, as well, a National Consumer Protection Week proclamation, which probably should have outlined steps Americans should take to protect themselves from the dangerous food products and toys that are the byproducts of the administration’s exceptionally ambitious trade agenda and exceptionally lax regulatory policies. There was a Constitution Day proclamation, which did not that we know of include a "signing statement" outlining the sections of the document the president would refuse to uphold during the remainder of the year. And perhaps most amusingly coming from the titular leader of an administration that is angling to expand its perpetual "war on terror" to include an imbroglio in Iran was Bush’s "Prayer for Peace" proclamation of May 15.
Today, of course, the White House adds to the year’s already long list of presidential pronouncements a Thanksgiving proclamation.
Bush has so devalued the official announcements of the White House that it becomes easy to imagine that they were never of consequence.
History reminds, however, that the cure circumstance is, like so much about the Bush presidency, a relatively new and certainly unwelcome variation on the American theme.
In the not-too-distant past, presidential proclamations were rarer and more meaningful statements, prepared by executives who intended them to be read and considered by Americans.
It was not at all uncommon for the nation’s greatest leaders to issue only one proclamation annually.
That was the case in 1789, George Washington’s first year in the White House, when he circulated only his Thanksgiving proclamation.
Similarly, in the last full year of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt issued just a Thanksgiving proclamation.
Roosevelt used his annual Thanksgiving proclamations as teaching documents. In his last statement to the nation, he encouraged Americans to think in broader terms, to recognize the need to put aside racial and religious prejudices in order to unite the nation in difficult times.
"Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved," wrote Roosevelt in that 1944 proclamation.
A year later, in a proclamation that celebrated the end of the war while mourning the death of Roosevelt, President Harry Truman used the Thanksgiving proclamation of 1945 to declare, "Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world."
This was a radical sentiment at a time when many of the United States remained segregated along the racial lines dictated by the southern segregationists. And it anticipated Truman’s embrace of civil rights in the years that followed, an embrace that would extend and expand upon the noblest impulses of the New Deal era.
That was not the only radical message in Truman’s proclamation, which spoke as well of a desire to use the United Nations to "make permanent" the peace that had finally arrived and to "cherish freedom above riches."
Nostalgia is a mixed blessing. The past that saw the rise of the civil rights movement also saw the necessity of such a movement. But on this Thanksgiving we can, perhaps, be permitted a measure of nostalgia for the days when presidential proclamations had meaning and when they were issued by executives who had the authority — and the desire — to guide the American people toward the better angels of our nature.