For only the sixth time in this century, and 14th in history, a president of the United States gets the opportunity to deliver a second Inaugural Address, at high noon tomorrow at the Capitol.
In the beginning, it was a fairly routine event. President after president -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson -- stepped forward to take the oath and tell their fellow citizens what they had on their minds as they began their second terms.
Great in stature though those names are today, few of their utterances were memorable.
Washington, sounding as stiff as he looks in those powdered-wig Stuart portraits, delivered a mere four sentences, cast in language best characterized as having an icy imperial majesty. It fits. He did, you'll recall, want to be referred to by the people as "His Excellency."
Jefferson, that apostle of liberty and freedom whom the press to this day invokes as its patron saint, in his second Inaugural Address levied perhaps a harsher assault on the sins of the American press than any given since by a president. Herewith some of Jefferson's tirade, which has, it must be admitted, a wonderfully contemporary flavor, given the state in which the public and politicians now hold the press:
"During the course of this administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety. They might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved to and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation, but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."
Good thing for the news media, print or broadcast, he's not around to sit on those libel juries hearing the cases of Ariel Sharon and former general William C. Westmoreland.
The rest of the second inaugurations -- with two notable exceptions -- are interesting now more for what they say about the stunning changes transforming the nation and the crises through which America passed than qualties of mind and heart that lift them above ordinary rhetoric.
So the presidents talked about combating the Barbary pirates, the acquisition of territory and spanning of the continent, the invention of the telegraph and the rise of organized labor, and, always, the wars Americans fought during their presidencies: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam.
(Poignancy and historical irony here: Grant, the relentless general, accused in his military career of butchery, boasted in his second inauguration in 1873: "Under our Republic, we support an army less than half of any European power of any standing and a navy less than that of either of at least five of them. There could be no extension of territory on the continent which would call for an increase of this force, but rather might such extension enable us to diminish it." And it was Grant, whose erstwhile army colleagues were then embarking on actions that blacken our history in the American West, who spoke eloquently against "wars of extermination" and called for tolerance for the Indian and righting of "the wrong inflicted upon him.")
The great exception, of course, is Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. It was delivered a month before the end of the Civil War and his assassination. It was four paragraphs long, written in his careful hand, stirring and deeply moving throughout, and concluded with the immortal passage:
"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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
The other second Inaugural Address that stands out among the rest, to me anyway, was Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1937. His first -- "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" -- is the one most often recalled, but the second contains a remarkable central passage in which he spells out a vision for the American future.
It begins: "I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources" and concludes several ringing paragraphs later with the famous lines: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."
He then said: "It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint if for you in hope -- because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Ronald Reagan, in joining this little band of presidents given their second chance to address the nation's concerns and articulate a vision of its future in an Inaugural Address, could do little better than to restate those words.
That is not said in criticism of the record of this singularly popular, and different, American president. The beauty of these inaugurations is that on this day the slate wipes clean. Foes and friends alike join in celebrating the new president and in expressing hopes for his success. For if he succeeds, the nation does, too.
As FDR also said in his second Inaugural Address, "Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth."
The hope always is for renewal and the new birth. So there are no dissenters here today, Mr. President. We wish you well while we await your words.