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Another Presidential Inaugural Speech



I listened today to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential inaugural speech. No, not the famous one given in 1933, in which he assured Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, but the one he gave in 1941, as he began his third term as president.

It’s a good speech, as such speeches go. Roosevelt’s voice was strong, he articulated his words clearly, and he spoke with suitable emphasis and emotion at the right places. He was obviously not yet the frail, dying man he would be when he gave his next inaugural speech in 1945.

The speech, which I had never heard before today, struck me in several regards. The president took a couple of swipes at the rich, and he posed as a friend of the little guy—standard rhetorical tactics throughout his presidencies. His principal thrust, however, was to represent the country as standing in grave danger from foreign foes, and to suggest without saying so explicitly that going to war against those foes was imperative if the nation were to survive with its traditional “spirit” of liberty and democracy intact. Although for the most part he framed his attacks on the “isolationists” by innuendo, rather than by frontal assault, he left little doubt that he was battling for the “soul” of the nation by contending that unless the United States threw its full weight against the unnamed foreign enemies, “democracy” was all but doomed in the entire world.

Most of all, however, I was struck by the great amount of sheer mystical collectivism that pervades the speech. Of course, politicians tend to speak in such terms in their public addresses — elevated balderdash is their stock in trade, as a means of concealing the hard realities of their proposals and actions. This speech, however, contains an exceptional amount of “spiritual” talk, and I found myself concluding repeatedly that the president’s declarations, notwithstanding their noble ring, lacked all content: he was referring to things that have no observable referents. Many of his statements were entirely symbolical, wholly without substance. I was reminded of the “mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,” of which Abraham Lincoln spoke in his first presidential inaugural address. Though Roosevelt’s language did not pack the poetic punch that Lincoln’s did, he sought to touch the same primitive emotions and collective loyalties, drawing the obstreperous and miscreant sheep together into the same “national” fold. He referred more than once to Lincoln.

One of my favorite books is F. G. Bailey’s unjustly neglected masterpiece Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership (1988). Bailey succeeds better than any writer I know in establishing how political leaders, who are essentially gangsters writ large, gain the people’s submission. The followers, he writes

are cajoled into devotion by the leader’s pretended concern or admiration for them or for some cause in which they believe, by a pretense of virtue; it is mostly humbuggery. . . . [T]he role of leader requires performances in defiance of truth, ranging from the mild and on the whole inoffensive metaphorical exaggerations . . . to actions that are carefully written out of autobiographies because they are shamefully dishonest or even criminal.

Listening to Roosevelt’s 1941 inaugural speech, I could not help but think of Bailey’s analysis, in which he also wrote:

Leaders are not the virtuous people they claim to be; they put politics before statesmanship; they distort facts and oversimplify issues; they promise what no one could deliver; and they are liars. . . . [However, and this point is central,] leaders, if they are to be effective, have no choice in the matter. They could not be virtuous (in the sense of morally excellent) and be leaders at the same time.

Think of these words, if you happen to listen to another presidential inaugural speech in the next few days.

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