President Lincoln's 1865 inaugural address started to heal the wounds of a bitterly divided nation. While the divide facing President-elect Bush on January 20th is not as deep, the need to set a tone of reconciliation is no less urgent.
A grand memorial to the president who will forever be remembered as the man who kept America together anchors one end of the national mall. At the other end is the Capitol home to the closely divided 107th Congress and location of many past inaugurals.
Bush would do well to break with custom and hold his inauguration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And he could eschew the standard parade route. Instead of a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue enclosed by federal buildings, expensive restaurants, and high priced law firms, he could pass down a tree-lined Constitution Avenue flanked by the majesty of the reflecting pool and the democratic expanse of the national mall. The statement would be even more dramatic than President Carter's decision to walk the parade route to be closer to the people.
The Lincoln Memorial is an altogether fitting place for Bush to take his place in history as an instrument to create a more perfect union. Like Lincoln, Bush would call upon all Americans to go forth in word and deed with charity and forgiveness firmly imprinted upon our hearts and minds.
The Lincoln Memorial is more than a monument to a single man or his achievements. It is a symbol of the highest American virtues, a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
From this monument, the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to a dream for a more just and integrated America. Upon its steps, in the depths of the Vietnam War, President Nixon visited with student protesters. The Lincoln Memorial is the natural backdrop for a political leader to advance the principles of unity, fairness and inclusiveness.
The image of the Lincoln Memorial is firmly carved into the American collective consciousness. Honesty, compassion, and service to the nation and all her people are lifted up for the world to see on its upright pillars. Lincoln was the first Republican president and, more importantly, his fairness and magnanimity were compelled by a desire to draw America together as one indivisible nation.
The inaugural address undoubtedly will attract scrutiny from all corners of the world and both ends of the political spectrum. From the everyday people who give vigor and life to the American Dream to the partisans and pundits high atop their televised perches, together we will look for a leader.
We will look for evidence of a man to make us proud as citizens of the world's oldest democracy and a man to lead us with moral courage in the face of national adversity.
Great challenges await Bush as president. Administration of the executive branch of the federal government is a monumental task. Under normal circumstances, a new president faces innumerable difficulties. These are not normal circumstances. The 107th Congress will have historically thin margins. Almost 100 million votes were evenly divided among the two leading candidates.
Vote patterns based on race, economic status and geography also show a divided nation as urban and minority voters went for Gore while suburban and ex-urban, rural, and white voters went for Bush. For the first time, trial lawyers and judges were nearly as important as citizens and party leaders in the selection of the president.
However a first step toward reconciliation of this divide and resolution of these challenges is to show leadership. The pageantry of an inaugural is well suited to political leadership. Bush can bring a refreshing novelty to a quadrennial national ritual while clinging tightly to conventional images, places and themes. Through self-evident, nonverbal communication Bush can present himself to America and the world as a humble man, our president, and the legitimate leader of the greatest nation on earth.
General Washington became President Washington after he spoke from a balcony high on New York's Wall Street. James Monroe was the first president to take the oath of office and to make an inaugural address from outdoors. Teddy Roosevelt's muscular administration was presaged by a parade that included cowboys, Rough Riders, and Apache Chief Geronimo. Ronald Reagan defied tradition and moved his inaugurations from the east front to the west front of the Capitol. Bush should make the inaugural his own, and in the process allow it to fit the needs of the nation.
Bush's address will probably rely upon campaign themes that brought him victory. However, an ability to work with people of all beliefs to solve seemingly intractable problems and compassionate conservatism are not enough to address the dramatic post-election saga. It is time to draw deeply from the well of Lincoln's legacy and to remind everyone of this enduring truth: We are one nation despite our differences.