And so it begins, one week and one day from today. On that bright morning—well, at just about 11:59:59 a.m.—you will place your left hand on the King James Bible your father and George Washington before him used for their swearing-ins, and take the oath of office. I wonder if when you finish you will bend slightly to kiss the big black book, as some new presidents have.
You will shake the hand of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, kiss your wife—president’s wives didn’t stand with their husbands at the swearing-in until Lady Bird Johnson decided she wanted to in 1965, and every president’s wife has since, usually holding the Bible. You’ll kiss your daughters, hug your parents—your mother will be smiling, and your father will have wept—and receive from an aide a dark leather notebook holder containing a print version of your inaugural address. You’ll turn to the podium, open the holder, look out at the crowd, scan the TelePrompTers, and begin.
“My fellow Americans . . .”
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Of course you could use “fellow citizens” (JFK, Reagan), “fellow-citizens” (Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln in 1861—he meaningfully changed it to “Fellow countrymen” four years later, as the Civil War ended), “my fellow countrymen” (LBJ), “citizens of the United States” (Grant), or “my countrymen” (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover).
Your father used “fellow citizens, neighbors and friends.”
Whatever salutation you choose, and you can create a new one, what follows will go into the history books, as you well know.
An inaugural address is a special thing; we have had only 53 of them since the first, Washington’s in 1789. Each has been a spectacular opportunity for the incoming or re-elected president to appear at his best, with all eyes upon him; to speak unfiltered, uncut and uninterpreted by the press, at least while he speaks and even for some time afterward. (Pundit politesse: Almost no columnist is tough on an inaugural address right away; it feels and seems ungracious.)
An inaugural is a special kind of speech in other ways. It is not an argument for a candidacy, but it can be an argument for a cause. It is not a laundry list of legislation, and it does not speak the language of legislation, or shouldn’t. It’s more like a tone poem. A State of the Union address, which you’ll give in late January, is a policy statement. It lays out specific goals and announces legislation in pursuit of them.
But an inaugural address speaks of root meaning. It declares a way of looking at the world. It tells us directly or indirectly about the new leader’s attitudes and intentions toward the great problems of the day. It is in fact a unique opportunity to define those problems (FDR, economic depression; Lincoln, looming war; Kennedy, freedom endangered; Reagan, freedom besieged.) An inaugural address names what it is we face, and declares the new president’s thinking on it.
You are in a good position. It is the opposite of Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965. Johnson that year gave his inaugural address in the shadow of a murdered president who four years before had given the finest inaugural of the modern age. LBJ was not, and would not be called even if he had been, JFK’s equal in stagecraft and eloquence.
You give your speech four years after the worst inaugural address of modern times, Bill Clinton’s second. It won’t be hard to surpass it. It’s good to follow inadequacy.
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Right now you’re still fielding suggestions and getting long e-mails with ideas and “language,” the word used in politics and business to mean this is not only an idea, this is how you should speak of the idea. Old friends and relatives are sending you bits of poems and verses of Scripture and saying, “Use this, George.” And you’re smiling and saying thanks and promising you’ll look at it later.
People, especially oddly enough people in politics, usually think the great challenge with an inaugural address is how to say things. How to come up with an “Ask not what your country can do for you” or a “Let us go forth to lead the land we love” or a “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But the real challenge is deciding what to say, not how to say it.
FDR decided first that he must reassure the American people that they would make it through the Depression. It was after he’d made that decision that he and his speechwriters came up with “nothing to fear.” The key moment was when he decided reassurance was necessary. The style of the reassurance followed.
Right about now, today, you’re still deciding what’s necessary. You’ve been jotting down notes and getting them to Michael Gerson, your speechwriter. And since everyone is still giving you ideas, I will too.
You have often referred to the need for more elevated attitudes in Washington, for bipartisanship. This is appropriate, and good. But with a Democratic Party and apparatus emboldened by Linda Chavez’s collapse and gunning for John Ashcroft and Gale Norton, your references to bipartisanship might seem like the gratitude of the young missionary who thought his new friends the cannibals were awfully nice to have him for dinner, when of course they were having him for dinner.
Your father spoke of bipartisanship in his inaugural address. “The people did not send us here to bicker,” he said, to great applause. Your father meant it, as you well know. He put out his hand and offered it to the opposition. And you know what his bipartisanship yielded: a one-way street that led to a single term. It yielded bad policy, and produced Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.
Are you going to speak of bipartisanship? Maybe you can do it in a way that makes it clear what you mean when you use the word. What is your vision of it, how do you conceive it, how will you achieve it, what will you not sacrifice to get it?
What is compassionate conservatism? You have spoken of it often, it is the phrase that stands for you. But in a concrete and specific way, how does it differ philosophically from the Democrats’ kind of compassion, which is in their view a harnessing of government resources to help the disadvantaged? How does your philosophy differ? Does it accept liberal concerns but differ with traditional liberal remedies? Does it amount to a philosophical shift in how the government will be encouraged or allowed to approach the disadvantaged?
This is a chance to talk about your philosophy. How does it differ from the old conservatism, from the thinking of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and then Ronald Reagan, and of Bill Buckley when he was young (for he too was a great leader of the conservative philosophy)? Compassionate conservatism is what you stand for domestically. You can reach a lot of people in your explanation of it in your inaugural, and make it memorable for them, more than a phrase.
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You will speak of America and the world. What is our country’s position now, and what should it be? The old bipolar world of U.S.-Soviet dominance, the old bipolar disorder, is over, and no one in politics has quite defined or argued for what must replace it. What is our place in the world now? Are we its leader? What does that mean and entail? What are we leading for, what are we trying to achieve, how do we mean to achieve it?
What is the biggest challenge facing our country now? Many of us, a minority but one senses a growing one—and one also senses that you’re one of us—feel that the great issue facing us, the one history will talk about years from now with wonder and horror, is an issue that shows up nowhere in the polls and has not had a national leader, a national voice.
And that is homeland security. The fact that we have virtually nothing protecting our continent from nuclear attack, from missile attack, that we have no infrastructure created to deal with nuclear terrorist attack, no strong broad civil-defense system to deal with chemical or biological attack, that we are utterly open to and vulnerable to cyber-terrorism, that we have an essentially unwarned populace. And this when everyone in Washington knows what’s coming, and knows that the only question is when.
You would do a great service to speak of these things in your inaugural. But it would cost you because it would be unpleasant. People won’t like it. But they need to hear it. They need someone to say, at least somewhere and soon if not next week: This is going to happen, and we have to unite and take strong measures now. (Maybe this is best for the State of the Union. And maybe a way to approach it is to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency, long a backwater, one of the most crucial government agencies. Maybe you signaled your intentions by putting Joe Albaugh, your friend and confidante, in charge of it.)
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Those are a few ideas on what is necessary. As for how to say it, you’ll follow your instinct and speak the way you speak—with simplicity, with common words. You speak the language of business and politics. It’s part masculine, part Texan, part modern, sporty. You say things like “the bottom line” without irony.
That’s fine. You can do a lot with plain words humbly spoken.
Mr. Clinton’s second inaugural was so bad because he never decided what he wanted to say, and finally just strung together a bunch of high-sounding phrases that sounded to him as if something serious were being said. He tried to camouflage with faux eloquence the fact that he had nothing to say. A famous historian turned to me, furious, in the moments after the speech was given and said, “It was junk! Just junk!” But he did not say that in public.
You, Mr. Bush, can do the opposite of Mr. Clinton. Don’t worry about how to say it, give your attention now to what to say. You don’t need fancy phony phrases, you don’t have to do “ask not” and “let us go forth.” Hold the “let us.” The country’s heard every one of these overblown, orotund phrases the past 40 years. Plain speaking would come like a blessing and be received like a gift.
A few small things that maybe aren’t so small. Dick Hauser, a Washington attorney and member of the Reagan class of ‘80-’88, has suggested you include some meaningful symbolism that would be a concrete benefit to the District of Columbia, and to all Americans. Announce that you are going to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue, the great broad thoroughfare that in the Clinton years was closed to traffic in front of the White House. You can make it a great dynamic boulevard again, make it a place of movement and commerce again, and give us all a sense of spaciousness returned and energy restored, on a two-way street.
Something else. Jack Kennedy did a moving and beautiful thing to his father the day he was inaugurated. Old Joe was up on the parade reviewing stand as the beginning of the inaugural parade came by in front of the White House. At the beginning of the parade was his son, in an open car. As JFK’s limo passed in front of the stand, the new president saw his father, stood and doffed his top hat to the old man.
Your parents will be in that reviewing stand too, including Barbara Bush, the first woman since Abigail Adams to be both first lady and mother of a president. If that doesn’t deserve a tip of the hat, what does?
Do good. An inaugural is a golden trumpet a president gets to blow at most twice in his life. Blow hard and true.
Bring your joy. Surprise people with your excellence. Give your foes second thoughts, and your friends new certitude. As your old man used to say, “Onward.”