EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


January 18, 2009

Inaugural moments seemed pedestrian at the time


(Asked by The New York Times last year whether he wrote that, Sorensen coyly replied, "Ask not.")

Roosevelt told the nation: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

FDR biographer H.W. Brands, in his 2008 book "Traitor to His Class," said that line would soon become a landmark of presidential rhetoric.

"At the time it didn't seem so," he wrote, "not least since it was patently false. Americans had plenty to fear, starting with massive unemployment, widespread hunger, and a collapsing financial system."

Ronald Reagan's tone of renewal — sweetened by the release of U.S. hostages by Iran — was the story of the day at his inaugural. The part that historians consider most significant now was his declaration that "government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem," because it presaged change in the ways of Washington.

Lincoln spoke to his people in a lawyerly fashion throughout much of his first inaugural, building a case step by step to save the union on the edge of civil war. "If a minority, in such case, will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them."

Then he spoke as a poet and, in effect, over the heads of his people — to generations to come — in closing lines that invoked "bonds of affection" between North and South that were not felt at the time.

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

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