In Europe the Russians had just raped and pillaged their way to Warsaw, "liberating" the first European capital occupied by Nazis five years earlier. The western front had bogged down in a six-month stalemate thanks to Eisenhower's strategic mistakes and his field generals' tactical ones. In the Pacific, the battle for the Philippines was inching past Douglas MacArthur's ego. In Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt was personally urging Congress to pass a work-or-fight bill for all men between 18 and 45. The allied offensive could not slacken, the president wrote to Congress, "because of any less than total utilization of our manpower on the home front." So went the week preceding FDR's fourth inauguration.
That slushy, Hamburg-gray Saturday in Washington, the country really was at war in every sense of the word. The picture was just as gray militarily. Roosevelt invited a few people to his inaugural ceremony, held it at the White House instead of at the Capitol, kept his address to the length of a brief advice column in the newspaper and served his guests cold chicken salad. There was no parade, no celebration.
President Bush, our neo-New Dealer, is reaping too much unfair criticism for the way he's going about his second inaugural. He spent the entire electoral season describing a country at war, describing himself as a "war president," comparing the war on terror to World War II, and wearing designer-fatigues in front of troops perfectly trained to die for his messianic fancies. Yet here he is, about to preside over the most lavish inaugural celebration in history (not counting a few imperial coronations of the Roman and Napoleonic sort).
The criticism is unfair because what most liberal detractors refuse to acknowledge is that Bush never intended to be a war president. He was only playing one on TV. He recognized better than any Democrat that it's the only way to win an election in a country of armchair jingoes. Leaders short on policy but big on politics not only read their electorate's fears accurately but stoke and validate them, riding them to victory. This the Bush camp has been doing splendidly since 2001. It brings to mind the way Leon Gambetta, the short-lived French statesman, summed up the long-lived "Ceasarian democracy" of Napoleon III and his Karl Roves of a century and a half ago: "Fear! That is their great political means. They engender it, they inoculate it, and, once they've frightened a certain class of citizens, they present themselves as saviors, the better to strip people of their freedoms, of their civic dignity, of their public rights."
Judging from the indifference, most people aren't concerned about their diminishing freedoms and rights. So celebration is absolutely warranted. Taxes have been cut four years in a row. The deficits are plumping up, but so are most Americans. Gluttony is a sign of health, not war. The war in Iraq has been subcontracted to America's working class, segregated out of sight and out of mind of most civically dignified gated communities. And the war on terror turns out to be just a phrase, or a useful slush fund. The FBI has given up on revamping the computer system that let the Sept. 11 terrorists hack their way into the country. The White House wants upwards of $17 million in Department of Homeland Security dollars to cover policing costs at inaugural balls and parades. It all fits in with this year's inaugural theme -- calibrating freedom to lip-service.
At his second inaugural, Thomas Jefferson (to whom Bush referred in his first inaugural) had reminded Americans "that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others." At his brief fourth, Roosevelt had found room to note that "we have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that 'The only way to have a friend is to be one.' " And Lincoln in his second had that line about malice toward none and charity for all.
Bush's record makes it difficult to tread in those directions, self-parody or humor of any kind being the one taboo in inaugural speeches, and America's friendship and integrity having as much value as the dollar of late. Word has it he'll stick to fear. He managed to scare the country into war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in barely existing Iraq. He's about to scare the country into waging war on its own government programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) over trumped up fiscal crises in the distant future. Never has the nation so knowledgeably re-elected its own executioner, or so willingly bought into its own bankruptcy. That's just the "ownership society" Bush will celebrate on Thursday. He's earned it, and so have we all.