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Time To Scale Back The Inaugural Pomp And Circumstance?

Obama 2012 Inauguration

Steven Taylor made some comments earlier today about the Presidential Inauguration that brought to mind a series of conversations I’ve been having over the past day or two about the way that we treat our Presidents, specifically as symbolized by the pomp and circumstance surrounding Inaugurations, although one can see similar ridiculousness during the State Of The Union Address, a subject that I’ve written about before. In short, it strikes me that the modern Inauguration Ceremony, which is far different from the way things were done in the past, places far too much of an air of monarchism around the Presidency. In some sense, perhaps, this is just a reflection of the fact of life that is the modern Imperial Presidency. We are long past the day where the President was the accessible person that he was even as recently as the 1920′s. Today, thanks in no small part to the fact of life of the National Security State, as well as the fact that real threats against Presidents have led to the creation of the most impenetrable security bubble in human history, the President simply can’t be considered on an equal footing with his (or, in the future, her) fellow Americans. Indeed, there are privileges and protections granted to modern American Presidents that would make the English Monarchs whom we rebelled against seem positively democratic by comparison.

Consider this simple fact. President Washington’s second Inaugural Address ran just about 140 words. President Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural, considered by most historians to be the most historically significant Inaugural Address in American history, came to 703 words. Today’s speech by President Obama came to just over 2,000 words, and that’s actually relatively brief by modern Inaugural standards, although, admittedly, no President has matched William Henry Harrison’s 90 minute Inaugural Address in 1841. The fact that Harrison died 30 days after giving that speech is probably a good reason for that. In any event, Obama’s 2,000 or so words are actually kind of brief in modern history. Still, it’s an indication of just how, well, regal,  the Inauguration Ceremony has become.  Other indications of this can be seen in the  various ceremonies that surround the entire event. The announcements of the presence of “noted” people. The ruffles and flourishes from the Marine Corps Band. Indeed, the playing of “Hail To The Chief” and 21 gun salute itself. These are not, I would submit, the traditions of a healthy democratic republic. They are the actions of a nation obsessed with celebrity on both the political and the cultural level. We shouldn’t think that the President is better than us, or entitled to any more respect than the average human being. That seems to me to be only one or two steps removed from the idea that the leader of the nation has been selected by God to lead us, and that we must obey.

I’m not suggesting doing away with Inauguration Ceremonies entirely. We’ve been swearing in Presidents on the steps of the Capitol Building pretty much since the Capitol Building has existed. What I am suggesting is that much of aura of regal-ness and self-importance that days like today tend to convey should be scaled back significantly. It would be good for the country in the long run.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    I’m going to say as someone who was there today that the country does need the pomp. It is a huge day that we should celebrate, if nothing else to show the faith we as a people have in our democratic process and the transfer of power. It also allows us to feel as if we are participating in a world of politics that feels so distant at times. The pomp reminds us of the importance of the moment. And it felt big today when I was there.

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  2. Anderson says:

    What Brett said. It’s a celebration of democracy.

    Besides, FBOW, our president is also the head of state. It *is* a coronation, in its way. I might be happier if we had a parliamentary gov’t, but that’s not the case.

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  3. aFloridian says:

    The pomp of the ceremony itself doesn’t really bother me, if that’s what gets people excited and encourages them to participate in the process.

    I do believe that the power of the executive branch has become far too vast over the past century or so, but I recognize that is unlikely to change.

    One might make an argument that history shows us that large republics have a tendency for power to become consolidated in a few over time, which is rarely in the best interests of the people whether the end result is tyranny, oligarchy, or an emperor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  4. Vast Variety says:

    I have a feeling your confusing the pomp and circumstance with the length of the speech which are not necessarily related other than they are occurring at the same event. Today’s politicians like to hear themselves speak far more than they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. You could do away with the 90% of the ceremony and still get a 2000 word speech about nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I’m sorry, but did you make these same statements about the inauguration of the President who established the laws that have created a lot of the security state that we currently live in or was he more homespun and modest (or white, as the case may be)?

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  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The pomp and circumstance of the inauguration are not problems. If anything, given the extent to which the body politic has been dumbed down, we need more pomp and circumstance. It’s probably way too late for Zombieland, granted, but perhaps if they observe the sheer power and accoutrements of the office they’ll clear out the cobwebs and not only begin participating again at rates commensurate with first-world democracies they’ll actually plug in their brains and think about for whom and for what they’re voting before they cast their ballots.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 14

  7. Nick says:

    I think you are engaging in a little too much historical picking and choosing with regard to the length of inauguration speeches. True, Washington’s and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Addresses were each quite short, but just to pick out a few examples James Monroe’s Second Inaugural was 4,472 and Abraham Lincoln’s First (not his most famous speech but hugely important given the tension at the time) was 3,637.

    That’s not to say, of course, that speeches should be that long – just that I think the problem is more one of speech-writing and less of Presidents getting more full of themselves as the country has matured.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  8. anjin-san says:

    I don’t mind a little pomp. On the other hand, Kelly Clarkson’s “singing”…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Vast Variety: ????!!! I suggest you start reading some of those actual speeches spoken by politicians back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Especially stuff in the 1890s. Anyone who says that the politicians back then weren’t prolix wordsmiths enamoured of purple prose doesn’t know his US history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  10. al-Ameda says:

    Scale it back? Hahahaha …

    You just know that everyone would be complaining that the inauguration did not reflect the greatness of America.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  11. Nikki says:

    Why does this subject only seem to come up when the “King” being “crowned” is not to the questioner’s liking?

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  12. swbarnes2 says:

    @Vast Variety:

    Today’s politicians like to hear themselves speak far more than they did in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    The speaker before Lincoln’s Gettysburg address spoke for 2 hours. I don’t think he would have done that if it wasn’t typical of the time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @Nikki:

    Why does this subject only seem to come up when the “King” being “crowned” is not to the questioner’s liking?

    48% of the people are still shocked that Romney did not win this election, and a fair percentage of those 48% actually believe that Obama stole this election. It’s understandable that today’s ‘pomp and circumstance’ irritates a fair number of that 48%.

    Remember back about 36 years ago when Carter was inaugurated with scaled back pomp and circumstance? Well when Reagan was inaugurated nobody wanted any part of that less pomp and circumstance crap.

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  14. superdestroyer says:

    Actually President Obama has done some things to limit the pomp. The parade was shorter than in previous years and actually started earlier. Two balls instead of the previous double digit. Both balls at the Washington Convention Center to make security easier. I also noticed that they eased security and let people stand along constitution avenue east of 3rd st.

    However, the luncheon seems to be getting longer and more pomp.

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  15. Tyrell says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: I know that I have said that for every .inauguration since Nixon’ s second. As have a lot of people. This is not a case of someone picking on Obama, which any type of criticism seems to always result in people saying that Obama is being treated unfairly, or in so many times results in “you’ re a racist”.
    Inaugurations have gotten too expensive and elaborate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  16. steve says:

    I agree with Doug. Scale it down. I think this is a symptom of our celebrity culture more than anything, but the symbolism is not good.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  17. C. Clavin says:

    What nonsense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  18. What I am suggesting is that much of aura of regal-ness and self-importance that days like today tend to convey should be scaled back significantly. It would be good for the country in the long run.

    That may be so, but then again the same could be said about professional sports, the Oscars, and any number of things.

    Back in Washington and Lincoln’s day, those who were not there read about it in the papers. Now we get live coverage.

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  19. @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I’ve felt this way about Presidential Inaugurations for quite some time, actually.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  20. @anjin-san:

    Bringing in Clarkson and Beyonce for this spectacle was really quite annoying, at least in my opinion

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 5

  21. Liberty60 says:

    I would be less exercised about the word count in an inaugural adress, than the Unitary Executive claims of the Imperial Presidency.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  22. rudderpedals says:

    This reaction doesn’t come off at all as churlish or mean-spirited.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  23. michael reynolds says:

    At first I was in agreement with Doug. I don’t like pomp myself. On the other hand, all that show seems to matter to some people, and it’s basically harmless. I put it in automotive terms. If you’re rich and insist on driving a Ford Focus it ends up seeming kind of silly, like an affectation. Not saying you have to drive a Rolls, but there should probably be some balance between your wealth/power and your display. Otherwise you just look kind of phony.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  24. Just Me says:

    The pomp surrounding the inauguration doesn’t bother me. I think it is kind of cool and the reality is the president has to be sworn in and the media and people who can are going to want to see it.

    I think some of the hoopla about clothes and balls etc is over the top and generally stuff I don’t care about, but I think the swearing in is kind of nice (although admit I was watching hockey today and not the inauguration because I admit I would rather watch hockey than presidential speeches).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. Andre Kenji says:

    Well, I live in country where the capital is located in the geographical equivalent of Kansas or Missouri ( It was built there partially because politicians were tired of dealing with popular revolts, including a rebellion against forced vaccinations and poor living conditions in 1904 and a rebellion by Navy Sailors against corporal punishments in 1910). For most of our existence our people could not vote for President and I think that there is a great apathy for politics and a big cynicism about politicians in the country.

    I have some envy to see this “pomp” and all this people in the inauguration of the President. It´s a big party, a big party about the political life of the country. I think that´s great, that´s something that I envy the United States of America.

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  26. C. Clavin says:

    People stood in line for hours to vote for the President candidate of their choice.
    1 million of them stood in freezing weather to watch the parade today.
    In a world where Kim Kardashian is a celebrity….we need a lot of pomp and circumstance.

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  27. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yeah, but didja’ say anything?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. bk says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’ve felt this way about Presidential Inaugurations for quite some time, actually.

    I’m sure that this is a total cut and paste of a column that you wrote in January 2004, with just minor tweaks to change names and stuff, right, Doug? Right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  29. qtip says:

    I agree with Doug.

    My prescription would be to limit it to a civic ceremony: no prayers, no pop stars, no official government-sponsored balls.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  30. Franklin says:

    I didn’t pay any attention, other than to read Steven’s and Doug’s post on the subject. So in that respect, they wasted the penny of my tax dollars that they spent on it.

    But if it makes anybody hopeful that we’ll have a functioning government soon, I’m all for it. People need to be happy once in awhile.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. Boyd says:

    Ruffles and Flourishes, “Hail to the Chief” and a 21-gun salute aren’t “traditions of a healthy democratic republic?” I can’t stand Obama, and even I think you’re…well, I don’t even have words to describe how wrong you are, Doug. In fact, you’re not just wrong, you’re intentionally and aggressively wrong, it appears to me. That you can wander the streets without someone to tend to you is just another manifestation of our nation’s disregard for the care of the mentally ill among us.

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  32. michael reynolds says:

    @Boyd:

    Upvoted not for agreement but for comic timing and making me laugh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  33. Tano says:

    “Hail to the Chief” was performed at the inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837, after having been played to honor President Jackson during his administration.

    Doug – your thesis that these type of honors are something new is patently false.

    And your use of the speech-length as some sort of proxy measure for how Presidents are treated as royalty just makes no sense at all, as well as being historically inaccurate, as .@Nick: points out above.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  34. Tillman says:

    Civic ritual matters. The appearance of civic rituals also matters.

    Still, it’s an indication of just how, well, regal, the Inauguration Ceremony has become.

    Here’s your problem. What was the last coronation you watched? Notice Obama isn’t conferred the Presidency inside, say, a cathedral, anointed with oil, or given bejeweled scepters and a crown. He swears an oath and makes a speech. The rest is on par with a particularly large high school sports rally.

    The 21-gun salute might be going a bit far. We don’t need to fear a “regalization” of our civic rituals, we need to fear a militarization.

    Note, for example, that despite how overblown our inaugural is, the Blue Angels don’t do a timed flyby.

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  35. Rafer Janders says:

    @Boyd:

    In fact, you’re not just wrong, you’re intentionally and aggressively wrong, it appears to me. That you can wander the streets without someone to tend to you is just another manifestation of our nation’s disregard for the care of the mentally ill among us.

    If I could have upvoted this a dozen times, I would have.

    And I usually disagree with Boyd. But isn’t the fact that Boyd and I, usually ideological foes, can find this area of agreement a sign of a healthy democratic republic?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  36. Ken says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: To be fair to Doug, I don’t think he was writing here back in 2005, so it’s not unreasonable to take him at his word that he has felt this way for a long time. I tend to disagree, but I personally know quite a few who have felt this way for as long as I can remember, even though their bitching about tends to be more vocal when Democrats are elected.

    But I do remember James Joyner actually attended the 2005 inauguration, and if I recall correctly the only bad things he had to say about it were that it was cold, traffic was bad, and protestors plus poorly run security made for unacceptably long waits with respect to the Parade. Otherwise he seemed to enjoy both the inauguration and the Constitution Ball, which he also attended.

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  37. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug demonstrates(again?) he has no idea of how politics, govt, leadership and democracy function. Theater and being seen by the people are essential parts of these processes as these people could tell you…….Napoleon, Wellington, Lincoln,Grant, TR, MacArthur, FDR, Hitler, MLK, Kennedy, Reagan, Ghandi, Churchill, Clinton, Queen Elizabeth. Societies and armies don’t cohere around anonymous clerks. And inauguration day is a national celebration, what do want to get rid of next Doug? 4th of July parades? Columbus Day Parade? St Patrick’s day parades? I was wondering why I’ve spent less time here recently. Doug just reminded me.

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  38. bk says:

    @Boyd: A little harsh there, don’t you think?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  39. Boyd says:

    @bk: The most entertaining humor contains at least a grain of truth, and I would contend that my comment contained a heaping dollop of truth.

    Then there’s that whole “humor” thang.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  40. bandit says:

    @Boyd: Putting people down is hilarious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  41. Boyd says:

    @bandit: You’ve apparently never read a comment thread at OTB. You’ve apparently not read this comment thread at OTB.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    St Patrick’s day parades?

    Heaven Forbid! That will leave Mardi Gras as the only parades that drunks can throw!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  43. Brummagem Joe says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Not often I agree with Boyd but he’s on the money. The fact is the president is a king…..he’s an elected king. Some kings move into the spot as to the manner born (FDR, JFK, Reagan, Bush senior, Obama) others less so (Coolidge, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush junior) but they’re all kings for four or eight years and due the honors that go with the office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda:

    48% of the people are still shocked that Romney did not win this election

    47%. 47% is more correct, I believe the final count after storm delayed reporting in NY was 47.2% nationally for Romney. And 47% is a lot funnier.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  45. Tillman says:

    Doug, I’ve got something for you to consider. How extravagant was the 2013 Inauguration of President Barack Obama compared to, say, the 2012 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II? Consider also that Britain was a global hegemon a century ago, and we are a global hegemon now.

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