Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Great Inaugural Addresses – I

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address
by Charlie Leck

“This nation is asking for action and action now!”

As we inch, so painfully slowly, toward Inauguration Day and the inaugural address that President-Elect Barack Obama will deliver, I have begun to think of past, extraordinary inaugural addresses. I thought a short series about the greatest of these addresses might be in order and might be a meaningful gift to my readers.

We are all expecting a rousing and assuring address from our next President. We have already seen and heard his oratorical genius. On such an occasion, this can be a meaningful and important ability. Personally, I await the address with great anticipation and expectation. It will, I am sure, be an extraordinary speech.

I begin this historical series with the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). It is an appropriate speech to review because Roosevelt was coming into office with the nation in a financial crisis. Some would say it is an unfair comparison to what Obama will face, but I am not sure it is. Only this weekend, Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, suggested that we are only inches away from our own Great Depression.

“The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.“So will we ‘act swiftly and boldly’ enough to stop that from happening? We’ll soon find out.”
On a Saturday, in early March of 1933, FDR rode to the nation’s capitol with out-going President Herbert Hoover. He took the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes.

Four years earlier, the stock markets had utterly crashed and the Great Depression began. Roosevelt had been Governor of New York. It was clear that whoever gained the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1932 would be elected to the nation’s highest office. When nominated by his party, Roosevelt, in an attempt to show his energy, flew to Chicago to become the first nominee to address his nominating convention.

Millions of people around the nation were glued to their radios to hear the Inaugural Address in which FDR announced his plans for the New Deal. Following the speech, the new president assembled his cabinet at the White House and went into meetings that lasted throughout the day and into the evening.

At his inauguration, Roosevelt had the dual task of appearing strong and demanding to the new Congress, while he was also assuring and confident to the American people. It was a brilliant and historic speech. This is the way FDR began.

“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. The great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”
Polio had severely crippled Roosevelt. Many talked and wrote of his condition as symbolic of the nation itself – a nation paralyzed both economically by the great crash and psychologically by immense fear. However, while Roosevelt found it difficult to hide his physical condition, he showed not an ounce of fear or retreat from the compelling and demanding battle ahead.

“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit…

“Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This nation asks for action, and action now.”
It is quite educational and inspiring to look at some of the photographs from the era of the Great Depression. One, at which I am now glancing, shows a long line of people waiting in a food line, to pick up what meager handouts they could get for their families. These were not vagabonds standing in that line. There were gentlemen in three-piece suits and handsome fedoras and ladies in proper dresses and hats. The time, as my father described it, was “as humiliating, degrading, frightening and terrible as you could imagine.” FDR understood that.

“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.”
It is similar to our President-Elect’s talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure by putting people to work on building and rebuilding our roads and bridges, our transportation systems and our schools, parks and playgrounds.

FDR talked of redistributing an overbalanced population, making a better use of the land and “by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products.” He addressed the growing loss of homes and farms to foreclosure. He demanded that both federal and local governments reduce their costs on government services.

The new President did not ignore international relations, but recognized the importance of getting along and building solid trade partners.

“In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor – the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others – the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”
FDR made a strong point of the interdependence of Americans on each other.

“…that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective."
To constitutional scholars, perhaps the most dramatic moment in FDR’s speech came when he said that he would proceed with or without Congress. It was a dire warning to Congress and its meaning has been carefully studied ever since the day of his inauguration:

“I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.“But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.“For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.”
From there, carefully, FDR moved to his quiet and humble conclusion.

“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.“In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.”
Because of the historic moment, it was one of the most extraordinary of all the great presidential inaugural addresses.


[To read the address in its entirety, go here!]

[To hear an audio of swearing in and inaugural address, go here!]

This past December, we visited a special photography exhibit at the
Minneapolis Institute of Art and this compelling photograph from the
depression era was on display. Remarkable! Sad!


I am pleased to have here in my library, in beautifully bound editions, all the inaugural addresses of all the Presidents of the United States. I have read most of them and many of them have brought me great comfort and hope.

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