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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2001 / 22 Teves 5761

Don Feder

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Thoughts on the inauguration of our 43rd President -- ON SATURDAY, George W. Bush will take the oath of office as the 43rd president of the United States.

A new president is always a harbinger of hope.

The nation hopes he will make it proud, wonders if he is up to the demands of the office and prays that if America is tested by war or economic crisis he will be equal to the challenge.

Bush has this going for him: The presidents who were underrated at the outset have been among our best. In 1861, the Washington power elite saw Abraham Lincoln as a bumpkin -- a man with less than a year of formal education, who had served one term in the House of Representatives.

Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man to assume the office, was deprecated as a wild-eyed adventurer -- "that damned cowboy," in the words of Sen. Mark Hanna. Roosevelt was a governor for only two years when he became vice president, an office he held for six months before he assumed the presidency.

Harry Truman, a compromise vice presidential candidate at the Democrats' 1944 convention, was dismissed as an accident of history, a bungler ("to err is Truman") and product of the corrupt Pendergast machine. In comedy routines and editorial cartoons, Dwight Eisenhower was depicted as an affable idiot led around by his aides. And, of course, there was Ronald Reagan -- the actor who couldn't think without the aid of cue cards.

All gave us greatness. Several were indispensable. Conversely, the most highly rated presidents have been among the most disappointing. Herbert Hoover came to office in 1929 with a reputation for genius and a political resume that inspired awe.

Jan. 20 will be the latest installment in a drama spanning three centuries. With rumors rife of an assassination plot, Lincoln arrived in Washington secretly for his inauguration. As a precaution, Army sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops along the parade route.

Andrew Jackson, the proud old general, stood ramrod straight at 61 as he marched to the Capitol for his swearing in. Still mourning his wife Rachel, and bitter at Federalists for attacks on her during the campaign, Old Hickory refused to pay a courtesy call on his predecessor, John Quincy Adams.

John Adams sneaked out of town to avoid a meeting with his successor, Thomas Jefferson. (They later reconciled, had voluminous correspondence and died on the same day.) Bitter rivals Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt rode to the latter's inauguration sitting in stony silence. Bill Clinton exhibited his arrogance early on by arriving late for his courtesy call on the Bushs.

The inaugural address can set the tone for an administration or serve as a dusty footnote of history.

In her book "Simply Speaking," Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan notes, "No speech is big without big policy to talk about." To illustrate the point, Noonan cites Clinton's second inaugural address ("a cavalcade of cliches"), wherein the president stupefied us with banalities like, "At the dawn of the 21st century, a free people must choose to shape the forces of the information age and the global society to unleash the limitless potential of all our people and form a more perfect Union."

By contrast, in his first inaugural, Jackson set forth an agenda program unembellished with flowery phrases: "The Federal Constitution must be obeyed, state rights preserved, our national debt must be paid, direct taxes and loans avoided, and the Federal Union preserved. These are the objects I have in view, and regardless of all consequences will carry into effect."

As war clouds gathered, Lincoln delineated a more limited program -- the preservation of the Union in the face of secession -- with soul-stirring words, as when he appealed to the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land."

With cadenced phrases, John F. Kennedy pledged to halt the spread of communism, "We will pay any price, bear any burden, suffer any hardship, support any friend and oppose any foe to ensure the survival and success of liberty."

No one expects Bush to rival these presidential orators. But his obvious sincerity and humility, combined with a profound faith, should serve him well on Saturday, as the drama continues.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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