The pageantry of the the US presidential election process provides many moments of note. There are the conventions where candidates are formally selected, the TV debates where they square off against each other, and the struggle to grasp the strange system of electoral college votes before polling day on the first Tuesday in November. None of the vestiges of the democratic procedure however are as old and and as solemn as the inauguration. Ever since George Washington spoke of democracy as “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” in his inauguration in April 1789, the event has been seen as a moment to try and unify the country after divisive campaigns.
Although this has been a hostile campaign, there have been worse times. Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 came in the final days of the bloody civil war. Some memorable lines have been delivered over the years too. FDR in taking the reins of power in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, proclaimed, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Nearly 30 years later JFK bequeathed a nation to, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Brevity is the soul of wit, and a fine way to get a message across, but no one told this to William Henry Harrison. On becoming the ninth US president in 1841 he took an hour and fourty five minutes to deliver his speech, by far the longest ever, in a snowstorm and without an overcoat or hat on. He died of pneumonia 31 days later making his the shortest presidency.
So what to expect on Friday when agent Orange takes over the airwaves of Capitol Hill? Will Trump, like most of his predecessors, try to strike a conciliatory tone and attempt to unite people? Or will he, much like Fr Ted upon winning his Golden Cleric award, fill the occasion with spite, bombast and recrimination?
Assassination is one outcome that often crosses my mind when watching these events. Maybe it’s because there are so many people in one place gazing up at such a powerful and divisive figure. That’s certainly what I was thinking eight years ago when 1.8 million people showed up to see Obama take office. Thankfully it has never happened and hopefully it won’t this week either. I’ve seen some people on social media, possibly in jest, hoping for this to happen to Trump. Apart from being a deplorable act of violence the outcome from assassinations is almost always the opposite to what the assailant intended. Lincoln’s work was continued by Ulysses S Grant and slavery never returned. LBJ pursued JFK’s work on civil rights and, lamentably, in Vietnam. MLK’s work and legacy survive. There’s always an exception to the rule though and that is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth Prime Minister of Israel. His killer wanted no deal or compromise with the Palestinians, believing it to be the right of the Jews to continue settlements and deny the Palestinians a state. He got his wish.
I don’t think even Trump’s speech writer knows what exactly will be said on Friday. I imagine there’ll be an element of conciliation as well as trademark truculence. More interestingly will be to see how it is received. Massive protests of support and opposition are expected in Washington DC and I’m sure around the globe. So let the reign of the 45th president of the USA begin. Much like it will continue.