Inaugural: Transfer and Beginning

January 20, 1993

In the 60 years since electronics made first the whole nation and now the whole world an instant witness to presidential inaugurals, that event has taken on a symbolic significance that can affect national and political life. Bill Clinton's future does not depend on his personalized hoopla and rhetoric today, but that hoopla and rhetoric will affect his bond with the whole nation and the whole world.

An inaugural address can serve as pep talk and morale builder. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt's optimism ("the only thing we have to fear is fear itself") and determination ("action, and action now") were just what Americans needed after three years of the Great Depression, and it helped get them through further hard times.

An inaugural can have one meaning when delivered and another in retrospect. John F. Kennedy said, "Let every nation know. . . that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival of liberty." That sounded brave in 1961, tragic later, heard over the echoes of Vietnam. Similarly, Ronald Reagan's 1981 talk of budget-balancing and his emphatic criticism of predecessors who had "piled deficit upon deficit" seemed a breath of sanity then but it rings farcical $3 trillion of debt later.

The telling symbolism of an inauguration sometimes can be found not in the address but in the ceremony. Jimmy Carter's 1977 words are not remembered today. What is remembered was his decision to reduce the presidency's imperialism by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue rather than riding in a limousine.

Each of those four inaugurals involved one party's transfer of power to another. The United States holds the patent on orderly succession, and nobody does it better. We will witness it again at high noon today.

The friends of William Jefferson Clinton who have designed and are managing 1993's inaugural have come up with a more diverse and representative parade this year, which is to be applauded. But they have let the president-elect down in terms of symbolism of another sort: His small town, small state style suggested less expense, less pomp, more access for ordinary Americans than it turns out will be the case. Perhaps such trappings will be overshadowed by the substance of his address. We shall see.

In any event, an inaugural is a beginning only, and the real test of a presidency is what comes after. President Clinton has won the right to deal with economic problems that are in their own way more worrisome than any since the Depression. (See below.) To paraphrase John Kennedy in his inaugural, overcoming these problems cannot be solved in 100 days or 1,000 days or even in one administration, but it is time to begin.

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