When I moved to Urbana several years ago, the local paper ran this headline: "Pastor from South Takes Charge of Urbana Church." This felt wrong on several fronts. First of all, I'm from Chicago, not the south. And I've never served a church in
the South, only a few
south of Urbana, which is not the same thing. The headline made it seem like I was the Confederacy's revenge for Sherman's March to the Sea.
Furthermore, no one ever successfully "takes charge" of a church, not even Jesus Christ. It's like trying to take charge of cats: can't be done...and if you
did get them to all work in concert, the first thing they'd probably do is get rid of
Of course this headline was better than the one about me when I was a pastor in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. "Ferry Pastor Announces Easter Program" just didn't have the right ring to it.
Anyway...what I'm getting at is this: the news media are telling us that there is a new guy in charge: in Washington.
I'll spare my gentle readers the irritating tenor of my political opinions and go right to my historical observations. You probably already know that I'm a connoisseur of presidential history. I have coffee mugs devoted to such icons as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. And there are over 200 books in my study on presidents and their elections. When Jie is away in China, I trek around the country visiting presidential homes and museums. I'm definitely the guy you want on your trivia team if there are any presidential questions.
And so I put on my "historian" hat and watched Donald Trump's speech this past Friday. As an historian, I can clearly see that he intends to take charge. Good thing he's trying to run the world instead of a church: maybe he'll have more luck.
Of course his speech was somewhat unique, compared to inaugural speeches of the past. Trump is no Calvin Coolidge. I suspect that if Coolidge was still president, 24 hour news would go out of business. I'm not always sure what the
country or the
world needs, but today's
media demands a Trump, not a Silent Cal.
Nor would the modern world tolerate a William Henry Harrison (our 9th president.) Grandpa Harrison (his grandson was also president) gave the longest inauguration speech ever. It was an 8400 word marathon. In comparison, my average 20 minute sermon is about 2000 words. Harrison died after being president for just one month, in all likelihood because he got typhoid fever from the White House's water supply, situated too close to a local sewer. (That same water supply likely killed President Zachary Taylor, President James Polk, as he was leaving office, and Abraham Lincoln's son Willie.)
The shortest inaugural speech was from Franklin Roosevelt, his fourth inaugural. It lasted less than 600 words, just a little less than
he lasted after he gave it (about 3 months.) So it is not a good omen to give either the shortest nor the longest inaugural speech: both record holders were dead within the month. President Trump, bold as he is, played it safe and down the middle with a speech of 1433 words.
It is my opinion that the best speech ever was Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural. It was only 700 words, but the phrases are exquisite.
If you ask my family, the worst inaugural ever came from William Taft. Not only was it too long (5,434 words is too much English!) but he refers to the "evils" of Asian immigrants. Obviously the Chinese have no sympathy when they hear the urban legend that Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub.
One of the themes that runs through almost all the inauguration speeches is the
dire condition of the country. Each new president seems heavily burdened by the mess his predecessor left him, especially if the predecessor was of the other political party.
And so I close my "Inauguration Epistle" with a brief quiz, a chance for you to catch up on some great lines you might have missed in inaugurations past. See if you can identify which president gave the following alarms in their respective inaugural addresses.
Choose from the following: Washington, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George W. Bush, and Obama.
- "We are fighting wars against poverty, ignorance, and injustice and the world is still engaged in a massive armaments race."
- "In the swift rush of great events, we find ourselves groping to know the full sense and meaning of these times in which we live...are the shadows of another night closing in upon us?... Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet."
- "Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other...The prayers of both could not be answered."
- "Our internal wounds are more poisonous than those wounds from foreign wars...let us purge our hearts of suspicion and hate."
- "An economic affliction crushes the struggling young and the elderly and...shatters the lives of millions causing human misery and personal indignity."
- "Disputes have arisen as to the amount of power the (constitution) ...intended to grant...particularly...to the executive branch...some fear that government might terminate in virtual monarchy... so I should take this occasion to repeat assurances of my determination to arrest the progress of this tendency." (In other words, a promise to be a weak president!)
- "There has never been such staggering loss of life and wastage...we must face the grim necessity with full knowledge that the task is to be solved."
- "The free enjoyment of equal (voting rights) is still in question...it is alleged that in many communities negro citizens are denied freedom of the ballot...these are grave allegations...to deny the freedom and sanctity of the vote is more than an evil...it is a crime which will destroy the government itself. If in other lands it be high treason to (kill the king,) it shall be counted no less a crime here to strangle sovereign power (to vote) and stifle its voice."
- "We are not exempt from evil...we have suffered sometimes by the visitation of heaven through disease; often by the wrongs and injustices of other nations...even war; and lastly by dissensions among ourselves...two great political parties which have divided the opinions and feelings of our country...there still remains one great effort of magnanimity, one sacrifice of prejudice and passion...that of discarding every remnant of rancor against each other."
- "We are ragged in spirit...torn by division...America has suffered from a fever of words, from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver, from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds, from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuades; we cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another."
- "No event could have filled me with greater anxiety" than your notification that I was now president...I suffer from..."frequent interruptions to my health," feel "overwhelmed with despondence"...believe I have "inferior endowments from nature...and am...unpracticed in the duties of civil administration."
- "This agitation (in) our country...has scarcely known any intermission...has been a prolific source of great evils...has alienated and estranged the people from each other...has endangered the existence of the union."
- "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred... our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some... our collective failure to make hard choices ...homes have been lost... jobs shed ...businesses shuttered... our healthcare is too costly... our schools fail too many... our planet is threatened."
- "whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny... prone to ideologies ...hatred ... excusing murder... violence multiplying ... destructive powers cross the most defended borders...raising a mortal threat."
- "How incredible it is that in this fragile existence, we should hate and destroy one another. There are possibilities enough for all who abandon mastery over others...There is world enough for all to seek their happiness in their own way...without this we shall become a nation of strangers."
We gathered in worship earlier today in the wake of yet another distressing inaugural clarion. And we prayed...and I pray each day: please and thank you. Please have mercy to deliver us from injustices and foolishness.. And thank you for blessings ordinary and miraculous. God bless the USA, and God bless the WHOLE WORLD which he so loved and for which he gave his only son. -Mike
- Carter, 1977
- Eisenhower, 1953
- Lincoln, 1865
- Ford, 1974
- Reagan, 1981
- William Henry Harrison, 1841
- Harding, 1921
- Garfield, 1881
- John Quincy Adams, 1825
- Nixon, 1969
- Washington, 1789
- Buchanan, 1857 (speaking of abolitionists)
- Obama, 2009
- George W. Bush, 2001
- Lyndon Johnson, 1965
The Complete Book of Presidential Inaugural Speeches: from George Washington to Barak Obama. Compiled and with Notes by Ian Randal Strock. Gray Rabbit Publications: 2010