'Let Us...'? No, Give It A Rest.

Come Saturday, on the Capitol's west front, the 43d president, immediately after becoming such, will look out, figuratively speaking (and as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at the conclusion of "The Great Gatsby"), toward "the dark fields of the republic" rolling on, and will unburden himself of his inaugural thoughts. Whatever they are, and whatever his manner of expressing them, the event will supply evidence of the evolution of the nation's preoccupations and sensibilities.

His Inaugural Address, the nation's 54th, presumably will make no reference, as Monroe's did, to coastal fortifications, and no reference to polygamy, which Garfield's said "offends the moral sense of manhood" and Cleveland's said is "destructive of the family relation and offensive to the moral sense of the civilized world." We have come a long way, in every way, from the day when the first Inaugural Address was delivered in the Senate chamber of Federal Hall on Wall Street on the inhabited southern tip of Manhattan, an island that then was mostly fields and forests. Here is the second sentence of George Washington's address:

"On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years--a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time."

We will get to the "on the other hand" anon. But first, ask yourself this: What would happen if a president today addressed such an 87-word sentence to an American audience? The audience would become bewildered, then restive, then headachy. What does that say about the direction we have traveled, rhetorically and therefore intellectually, since 1789?

Granted, when Washington spoke as he did, the country was not wired, so it was not listening. Still, there was an audience in the room, and presumably it had no difficulty following his words. His listeners, their ears trained by the oral culture of Protestant sermons, could cope with a serpentine thought expressed in a sentence of sinewy syntax. Besides, Washington's listeners were raised on the King James version of the Bible and Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer and John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." Their mental muscles had not gone flaccid from a steady diet of advertising, situation-comedy repartee and "see Spot run" journalese.

The late Herbert Stein, who for 60 years was an economist and connoisseur of America's political culture, discovered that in Inaugural Addresses from Washington through Buchanan, the average number of words per sentence was 44; from Lincoln through Wilson, 34; since Wilson, 25. However, only one In-augural Address merits a place in the nation's literature. No one who has a pulse, or deserves to have one, can read Lincoln's second Inaugural ("Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away... With malice toward none, with charity for all...") without a frisson of patriotic awe. And in its context, the most eloquent sentence in Lincoln's address is four words long: "And the war came."

The general shortening of sentences reflects, in part, a change in the nature of Inaugural Addresses. Stein noted that beginning with Woodrow Wilson, they often took on hortatory cadences as presidents came to think it their job, and the gov-ernment's, to incite Americans to change their behavior ("The only thing we have to fear..." "Ask not..."). Wilson, who missed his calling (he should have been a fierce Presbyterian divine), in his first Inaugural waxed prophetic: "At last a vision has been vouchsafed us of our life as a whole."

The presidency, which Teddy Roosevelt called a "bully pulpit," really has become awfully like a pulpit, with presidents toiling to establish the oral and visual relationship of pastors exhorting their congregation: "Let us..." Kennedy used that phrase--its approximate meaning is: "For Pete's sake, pull up your socks and shape up"--16 times in his Inaugural Address, and Nixon used it 22 times in his second. Good grief.

But let us get back to Washington's first Inaugural. He expressed remarkable modesty, all things considered. And he was hardly a Uriah Heep. The president's pride, dignity, reserve and aura of command were not only universally admired; they were the towering political facts of--indeed, the cement of--the infant republic whose birth he had brought about by waging war against the world's mightiest power. Furthermore, he had just become the first (212 years later, he is still the only) president to win all the electoral votes. Yet in his third sentence--at a mere 69 words, it was of almost Hemingwayesque terseness--Washington said:

"On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."

Yes, there really was a time when American leaders wrote and spoke like that, and Americans understood. Washington's protestations of inadequacy may seem a tad overdone, but they were tactical. At that time the country, having just emancipated itself from a monarchy, had a lively suspicion of executive power and of anyone whose grandeur might tempt him to take the unformed presidential office in that direction. Bush need not assuage that anxiety, which on a list of today's anxieties ranks somewhere below worries about coastal defenses and polygamy.

Join the Discussion