Commentary Magazine


Topic: Inauguration Day

The Great Ceremony of Democracy

Many Americans love to watch the ceremonies that attend to the doings of British royalty as well as the United Kingdom’s elaborate method for opening the sessions of its parliament. For the most part, our more simple republican (with a small r) traditions are less photogenic as well as less tourist friendly. There is something slightly unseemly, albeit understandable, about this American love of the trappings of monarchy.

Yet Inauguration Day is the exception to this rule. The swearing-in of our president and vice president, accompanied by the ceremonial playing of “Hail to the Chief” and the firing of salutes, gives us a little taste of tradition even if it falls short of the “Masterpiece Theatre” level that they maintain on the other side of the Atlantic. But the true resonance of the day’s proceedings lies in its symbolic reaffirmation of the core values of our democracy and the peaceful way in which we transfer and maintain power in our republic. Inauguration Day is a sacred day in our secular calendar, not just because of who is honored but because it recalls the day in 1801 when, for the first time, one party peacefully handed over the presidency to its rival.

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Many Americans love to watch the ceremonies that attend to the doings of British royalty as well as the United Kingdom’s elaborate method for opening the sessions of its parliament. For the most part, our more simple republican (with a small r) traditions are less photogenic as well as less tourist friendly. There is something slightly unseemly, albeit understandable, about this American love of the trappings of monarchy.

Yet Inauguration Day is the exception to this rule. The swearing-in of our president and vice president, accompanied by the ceremonial playing of “Hail to the Chief” and the firing of salutes, gives us a little taste of tradition even if it falls short of the “Masterpiece Theatre” level that they maintain on the other side of the Atlantic. But the true resonance of the day’s proceedings lies in its symbolic reaffirmation of the core values of our democracy and the peaceful way in which we transfer and maintain power in our republic. Inauguration Day is a sacred day in our secular calendar, not just because of who is honored but because it recalls the day in 1801 when, for the first time, one party peacefully handed over the presidency to its rival.

Many of us may have hard feelings about President Obama’s policies and are licking our wounds after his re-election. But on Inauguration Day, we put those feelings aside for a few minutes and thank the Almighty for the preservation of our republic and its Constitution. We can and should cheer Barack Hussein Obama’s taking of the oath and swear allegiance along with him to the document to which he has pledged his fealty.

After doing so, we will begin again the task of speaking up for the principles which we believe will best secure our nation’s future and preserve its liberties. But as we do so let us understand that the institutions that today honor President Obama should never be diminished in the name of partisan argument. In doing so, we can enjoy the ceremony and remember that what unites us as Americans should always be greater than what divides us.

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Sunday Inaugurations and Immortality

Today is the seventh time that Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday. As in the past, the president will be sworn in a small ceremony in the White House and the public inauguration, inaugural address, and parade will be held tomorrow.

There was one exception, Sunday March 4, 1849, when president-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath on a Sunday. The vice president-elect, Millard Fillmore, also declined to take his oath. Since James K. Polk’s term of office as president and George M. Dallas’s term as vice president certainly ended at noon that day, who was president?

There has long been a claim that it was David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, a Democrat, who was president pro tempore of the Senate, and thus, under the succession law then in place, next in line. Atchison’s tombstone describes him as having been “President of the United States for one day,” and the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas, which was named for him, contains what it describes, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as the country’s smallest presidential library.

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Today is the seventh time that Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday. As in the past, the president will be sworn in a small ceremony in the White House and the public inauguration, inaugural address, and parade will be held tomorrow.

There was one exception, Sunday March 4, 1849, when president-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath on a Sunday. The vice president-elect, Millard Fillmore, also declined to take his oath. Since James K. Polk’s term of office as president and George M. Dallas’s term as vice president certainly ended at noon that day, who was president?

There has long been a claim that it was David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, a Democrat, who was president pro tempore of the Senate, and thus, under the succession law then in place, next in line. Atchison’s tombstone describes him as having been “President of the United States for one day,” and the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas, which was named for him, contains what it describes, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as the country’s smallest presidential library.

Actually, the claim for Atchison fails simply because his own term as president pro tempore had expired when Congress had adjourned sine die the morning of March 4. Atchison himself said later that having been up most of the night dealing with last-minute Senate business he had slept most of that Sunday when he was supposedly president.

In fact, Zachary Taylor was president from the stroke of noon, March 4. The Constitution requires that “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office,” the president must take the oath. In other words he can’t exercise the powers of the office without taking the oath, but he is nonetheless president. In the middle of the 19th century the country could well make do for a day with a president who had no power to act.

David Atchison, like most politicians prominent in their own day, is now completely forgotten. However his name lives on because Atchison County, Kansas, and its county seat, were named for him. And Atchison, Kansas, became the eastern terminus of the world’s most poetically, indeed onomatopoeically, named railroad, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. The railroad, in turn, gave its name to the song “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which, sung by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls, won the Academy Award for best song in 1946.

It’s not much of a hook upon which to hang one’s immortality, perhaps, but politicians have to take what they can get.

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Misunderstanding Massachusetts

The Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel reacts to the Massachusetts election by suggesting Obama’s troubles may simply reflect “a case of the best US president at the worst time” — a great man understandably unable to bring “change” because he has to deal with so many crises:

Barack Obama has spent his first year in office fighting one crisis after another. Now he faces a political crisis of his own — the defeat in Massachusetts threatens his health care reform, his most important domestic project. Is it a case of the best US president at the worst time? …

In times of crisis, insecurity and defensiveness trump any openness to change. And since his inauguration Obama has had to deal almost exclusively with crisis management. The financial crisis, the automotive crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the global crisis. There have never been quite so many crises.

The five crises do not quite compare with inheriting the Great Depression (FDR) or World War II (Truman), and memories are short about what George W. Bush faced in his first year: a recession caused by a burst Internet bubble; the failure of the seventh largest company in the country (Enron) and one of the Big Five accounting firms (Arthur Andersen); an attack on New York and Washington, D.C.; a stock market that crashed and an economy that tottered; the need to mobilize the country for a war in Afghanistan; a failed “peace process” inherited on Inauguration Day (with a new Palestinian war against Israel already in its fifth month); etc.

The difference is that Bush did not spend his first year blaming Bill Clinton for the Internet bubble or the inherited recession, or the ineffective response to the first World Trade Center attack and the multiple attacks thereafter, or the bungled peace process. Bush got tax cuts enacted that helped restore the economy; began his war on terror that kept the country safe for the next seven years; worked cooperatively with Ted Kennedy on major education legislation; and so on.

Obama spent his first year responding to the financial crisis with massive borrowed-money bailouts; to the automotive crisis with a government takeover and a transfer of wealth from secured creditors to unions; to the jobs crisis with a trillion dollar “stimulus” that didn’t work; to the climate “crisis” with a nonbinding international agreement featuring a blank appendix; and to the “global crisis” with … what?

Most of his time was devoted to ObamaCare, something unrelated to the five “crises” he faced and something that got more unpopular the more people understood it. He made a lot of trips and speeches, most of them reminding the country that now was the moment and telling the world that his hand was outstretched. For the coming year, he plans a huge tax increase in the guise of letting current tax rates “expire” and has no plan for the real crisis he will face: Iran.

He has not been the best president and these are not the worst of times — and the sort-of-God/best-president-ever treatment he received from the mainstream media contributed significantly to the problem he now faces. His belief that he just needs to slow down and “explain to people why we’re doing what we’re doing” is a more-cowbell response that ignores what Massachusetts was trying to tell him.

The Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel reacts to the Massachusetts election by suggesting Obama’s troubles may simply reflect “a case of the best US president at the worst time” — a great man understandably unable to bring “change” because he has to deal with so many crises:

Barack Obama has spent his first year in office fighting one crisis after another. Now he faces a political crisis of his own — the defeat in Massachusetts threatens his health care reform, his most important domestic project. Is it a case of the best US president at the worst time? …

In times of crisis, insecurity and defensiveness trump any openness to change. And since his inauguration Obama has had to deal almost exclusively with crisis management. The financial crisis, the automotive crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the global crisis. There have never been quite so many crises.

The five crises do not quite compare with inheriting the Great Depression (FDR) or World War II (Truman), and memories are short about what George W. Bush faced in his first year: a recession caused by a burst Internet bubble; the failure of the seventh largest company in the country (Enron) and one of the Big Five accounting firms (Arthur Andersen); an attack on New York and Washington, D.C.; a stock market that crashed and an economy that tottered; the need to mobilize the country for a war in Afghanistan; a failed “peace process” inherited on Inauguration Day (with a new Palestinian war against Israel already in its fifth month); etc.

The difference is that Bush did not spend his first year blaming Bill Clinton for the Internet bubble or the inherited recession, or the ineffective response to the first World Trade Center attack and the multiple attacks thereafter, or the bungled peace process. Bush got tax cuts enacted that helped restore the economy; began his war on terror that kept the country safe for the next seven years; worked cooperatively with Ted Kennedy on major education legislation; and so on.

Obama spent his first year responding to the financial crisis with massive borrowed-money bailouts; to the automotive crisis with a government takeover and a transfer of wealth from secured creditors to unions; to the jobs crisis with a trillion dollar “stimulus” that didn’t work; to the climate “crisis” with a nonbinding international agreement featuring a blank appendix; and to the “global crisis” with … what?

Most of his time was devoted to ObamaCare, something unrelated to the five “crises” he faced and something that got more unpopular the more people understood it. He made a lot of trips and speeches, most of them reminding the country that now was the moment and telling the world that his hand was outstretched. For the coming year, he plans a huge tax increase in the guise of letting current tax rates “expire” and has no plan for the real crisis he will face: Iran.

He has not been the best president and these are not the worst of times — and the sort-of-God/best-president-ever treatment he received from the mainstream media contributed significantly to the problem he now faces. His belief that he just needs to slow down and “explain to people why we’re doing what we’re doing” is a more-cowbell response that ignores what Massachusetts was trying to tell him.

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