Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 19, 2008


    Inaugurals, for some reason, very often come in times of stress.
    You could start, of course, with George Washington for whom everything was a precedent.  Big questions.  How does this new, little country deal with the world?  And silly ones.  What does the president do with his laundry?
    Abigail Adams actually solved that one.  She hung her husband's unmentionables out to dry in the East Room so that the vulgar masses wouldn't see them swinging freely in the backyard.
    But serious crises, too.  Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln were confronted with slavery.  One of them didn't handle it;  the other, of course, was brilliant.
    And then there were the war presidents:    Woodrow Wilson, who had to decide what to do about World War I;  and Franklin Roosevelt, who changed almost everything.   His domestic program helped end the Depression and his leadership in response to Pearl Harbor ("a day that will live in infamy...") changed America from a power into a great power - which it remains today.
    And surely no president had a rockier start than Harry Truman.  He may have been #2 in the White House pecking order, but Roosevelt had never told him the United Sates was developing an awesome new weapon call the atomic bomb.  It was Truman who had to decide whether to drop the bomb.  Without it, he'd been told, a land invasion of Japan would cost a million American casualties.  Truman made the correct decision, most of us would probably now say.  And the US remains the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons in war.  That was just one of Truman's decisions:  unconditional surrender, formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the UN, help for Greece and Turkey against the Communists, the GI Bill, which changed America.  Decision after decision.   Looking back, though he was very unpopular at times, Mr. Truman got most of them right.
    Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had relatively calm inaugural periods, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
    Lyndon Johnson inherited a nation in deep mourning for its Camelot and then was trapped in a bloody useless war in Vietnam.  Yet at the same time he changed the country forever with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts.
    Now here's a new guy who inherits two wars and an economy which seems bent on foolishness if not self-destruction.  Given our history, you'd have to say most new presidents who faced crises did pretty well.  Barack Obama seems - we don't know yet, of course - as if he might the the right man for these particularly difficult times.
    Let's hope he - and we - are that lucky.
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