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An Historical Look At War-time Inaugurations

Neely Tucker, The Washington Post, 12/13/04

The inauguration fell during a time of war and national turmoil. Soldiers were dying in a shadowy conflict half a world away. The televised images were horrific.

The election had been bitter, nasty and close. Protesters clamored that American soldiers, some of them accused of atrocities, should come home.

So when the president delivered his inaugural speech, he set out a theme of peace, harmony and vision. He chose warm, healing words, often drawn from biblical images, and used them to soothe the nation's troubled heart.

"The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker," he intoned."This honor now beckons America -- the chance to help lead the world at last out of the valley of turmoil. . . . We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. . . . to a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit."

Thus spoke Richard Milhous Nixon in 1969.

The Vietnam War and domestic troubles would continue for years, until the last Americans out of Saigon and the president himself disappeared into history via helicopter.

Thirty-five years later, President Bush and his administration tomorrow will announce the theme for the wartime inaugural events of this generation. Spokesman Steve Schmidt said in an interview last week that Bush would not have a"dance in the end zone" type of celebration -- the inauguration would strike a dignified tone between celebrating a hard-won political victory, the continuation of the nation's democratic process and honoring the men and women serving in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The inaugural theme rollout will strike an important note in the social life of Washington and provide momentary symbolism to the world, but as the eloquent Nixon speech demonstrates, history has a habit of defining the president rather than the other way around.

Still, an inauguration during a time of war, and before a deeply divided electorate, affords Bush a landmark opportunity to wrangle images and themes in his favor for a few precious days, presidential historians say, and hope that they echo into the coming years.

"On the short list of great American rhetoric, inauguration speeches take up a fair amount of space," says Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of political science at Princeton and author of"The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush."

"Think Roosevelt's 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Think Kennedy's 'Ask not what your country can do for you.' It's a president's chance to address history, to rise above the fray."

Sheila Tate, former press secretary to both Nancy Reagan and the elder George Bush, has been eyewitness to some of that history. In the end, she says, it's all about The Speech.

"I can't for the life of me remember the theme of any inauguration," she says with a laugh."What gets remembered is the speech. It's usually noted for its brevity, for two or three memorable lines -- but if it's delivered outside, believe me, for the participants, it's remembered for the brevity."

Inaugurations during a war are rare in American history -- only a handful of the 55 presidential inaugurations have been in times of open conflict -- and some of those rank as some of the most memorable.

The gold standard is Lincoln's second inaugural address of 1865, in which he invoked the full moral weight of the battle against slavery in the Civil War. It is famous for Lincoln's soaring conclusion:"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. . . ."

It was a transcendent moment in American history, but the practical reality that March afternoon was that weeks of rain had turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a sea of mud and standing water. It was not a glorious venue.

Second, historians generally agree, is Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth inaugural address, in 1945. The nation was exhausted by World War II, and Roosevelt's health was failing. The inaugural parade was canceled, and the oath of office was delivered not on the steps of the Capitol but on the South Portico of the White House.

FDR, less than three months before his death, told the nation that it was passing through"a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage -- of our resolve -- of our wisdom -- our essential democracy. If we meet that test -- successfully and honorably -- we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time."

It was the rare magic touch, of defining history and making the terms stick. Half a century later, the monument to FDR stretches around the Tidal Basin. The men and women who listened to him over the radio are popularly referred to as"the greatest generation." The vast monument to the soldiers of that war was erected last year on the eastern edge of the Reflecting Pool. The west end of the pool ends at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

That said, if the war doesn't go well, no one remembers the inauguration in heroic terms, no matter how lofty the imagery of the president-elect.

[Editor's Note: The original piece contains more historical examples.]