George W. Bush spent his last day making phone calls to foreign leaders. Our President didn’t make the cut. While I think Amando Doronila is exaggerating the possible antipathy between the incoming Obama White House and the present domestic dispensation, our government might reasonably expect sublime indifference from Washington.
Tonight, our time, the United States inaugurates a new president. The Americans, like the French, are masters at creating spectacles that glitter with the pomp of republican democracy. The event unfolding tonight in Washington, D.C. will be no exception.
The Americans, like the French, are masters of republican pomp. The Americans have a particular knack for combining tradition and Hollywood-style spectacle.
As the inaugural unfolds, there are commentaries and comparisons aplenty concerning Obama and his predecessors. The new President himself is interested in history, believes it has lessons to teach him; an interesting account of his reading habits is in From Books, New President Found Voice.
In a commentary in Slate, Fred Kaplan argues Forget FDR and Lincoln; Obama Is Most Like JFK:
Obama seems to grasp the connection. In his weekly YouTube addresses, he has placed three leather-bound books just behind him and to his right. Take a close look. They’re the three-volume edition of The Public Papers of John F. Kennedy. Clearly this is a man who understands iconography.
Though it’s interesting that beyond the nod to Camelot mentioned above, the focus of many commenters seems to be less on JFK and more on other Presidents. Could it be that Camelot has been too tarnished by books such as “The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power” (Garry Wills), in which, as one review put it,
Truth, however, being all too often inconvenient, was from the beginning, Mr. Wills contends, a commodity the Kennedys treated with wary disrespect. So much more reliable -hence more useful – was ”image,” which could be manipulated as effortlessly as the tiller of one of their sailboats, and in the propagation of which the family could enlist the enthusiastic aid of seemingly limitless echelons of upwardly mobile lawyers, journalists and academicians who craved the status that accompanied annointment (informal, yet unmistakable) as an ”honorary Kennedy” – a term Mr. Wills borrows from Victor Navasky.
The essential lesson of Camelot being that all that glitters isn’t political gold.
So then more understandable, perhaps, is Obama’s having consciously invoked Abraham Lincoln -including using the Bible used by Lincoln in his first inaugural. Much has been made by the candidate and commenters on his appreciation of “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (Doris Kearns Goodwin).
But there are comparisons, too -though more common, perhaps, among the historically-minded than the public- to Franklin D. Roosevelt. See Will FDR Inspire Obama? After all, FDR instituted the importance of the “First 100 Days” for a presidency. It’s interesting that Time Magazine decided to put together an issue with a cover superimposing Obama’s face on a photograph of FDR. And will have an article on The New New Deal.
I suppose comparisons with another president -Andrew Jackson- are viewed as politically incorrect, since Jackson was a slaveholder. Yet there is something of a Jacksonian flair for populism in the way the inaugural’s been painted to represent a kind of Big Block of Cheese moment.
Most remarkable, though, and could it be there’s a certain foreboding at the back of people’s minds, an implied apprehension, concerning the new administration? All the comparisons involve presidents who died in office. Two of them, Lincoln and Kennedy, at the hand of an assassin, the other, FDR, who died in harness, exhausted and having made such a mark that a constitutional amendment was passed to prevent a three, much less four-term president from ever happening again?