A Day Like No Other

January 20 for the most part is in the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.  But, January 20 is one of the most significant days in the American republic.  It is Inauguration Day. Every four years, on January 20, that person who received the most number of electoral votes in the previous November election, puts a hand on a Bible, and swears to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”.  It is the finest example on Earth to demonstrate the peaceful transfer of power from one person to another.

This January 20, 2011 is the anniversary of the inaugurations of three American Presidents who have had a profound effect on the American nation in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.  John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush were inaugurated on this day with 20 years intervals separating them from one another. 

In 1961, 50 years ago today, John F. Kennedy, a young, charismatic Senator from Massachusetts, the first Catholic ever to be elected President, was inaugurated on a cold, snowy day in the District of Columbia.  A Democrat, he called for a reduction in the marginal tax rate to help spur the economy and supported  a strong military as a defense of our nation, which would align him more with the conservative Republicans of today.    The tax cuts passed with the help of conservatives from the Midwest and Northeast were instrumental in the growth of the American economy and establishing a standard of living for Americans unequalled anywhere in the world.  With strategic allies in Western Europe and the Far East, Kennedy was a committed anti-Communist.   Even though he had been embarrassed by a shoe pounding Nikita Khrushchev  earlier in the year, in October, 1962 he guided the United States through eight days of crisis by ordering a naval blockade of Soviet ships loaded with short range ballistic missiles headed to be installed on the island of Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the US shore.    By causing the other side to blink, he established himself as the leader of the free world and went on to be admired by people of all nations.  On a trip to Germany in the summer of 1963, he spoke to an almost immeasurable crowd in the divided city of Berlin, and told them that “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

This first World War II veteran to occupy the White House, Kennedy inspired future generations of Americans to public service, as the words from his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” are some of the most quoted from any Presidential inaugural and still ring true today.  

Sadly, this President would be killed at the hand of an assassin in November, 1963, and his term of about 1000 days in length would be remembered more for references to ‘Camelot’ than what was actually accomplished.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States.  A new kind of conservative who had served as Governor of California through a turbulent time, this almost 70-year-old became one of the oldest to ever occupy the Oval Office.   Prior to becoming Governor he had been a movie and TV actor known for hawking General Electric appliances,  co-starring with a chimpanzee and inspiring the Notre Dame football team to “win one for the Gipper”. 

After the divisions left from Vietnam, the disappointing years of Watergate, the four years of Jimmy Carter telling Americans that we were in a malaise, this eternal optimist  spoke of the “shining city on the hill”  and reminded us that we had a  “rendezvous with destiny” to “preserve for our children this last, best hope on earth”.  He reminded us that America is a remarkable and exceptional country and made us feel good about ourselves again. His enthusiasm and patriotism was contagious. So many of the conservative leaders of today talk of how Reagan inspired and influenced them and helped to cultivate their conservative principles.  President Reagan, through his remarkable communication skills gave us such memorable moments including that of admonishing the Soviet President by stating at the Brandenburg Gate:   “Mr. Gorbachev:  Tear down this wall!” in reference to the that which was constructed some 25 years earlier to divide free from Communist Berlin.   

Both Kennedy and Reagan had two of their more memorable moments in Germany.

In carefully staged and crafted event, he saluted the ‘boys of Pointe Du Hoc’ by commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landing at D-Day with the 60 year olds of the Greatest Generation.   And in January, 1986, Reagan lead our nation as we mourned the loss of the NASA astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion.   Dubbed “The Great Communicator” Reagan brought a new era to the Presidency, one that was tailor-made for the medium for which he had gained acclaim earlier in his professional life,  television.  It was during his term, the advent of cable TV news and the 24 hour news cycle began, and President Reagan was never short on photo-ops and sound bites to feed the appetite of  the ever-increasing national media.

While the nation sang along with his campaign theme song “God Bless the USA”, a young Marine officer was working behind the scenes under the direction of the national security advisor to help bring democracy to Central America. Ollie North then traded arms for hostages with those who were determined to destroy Israel and cause harm to the United States in the infancy of what would become the defining conflict for the United States for the rest of the 20th century.  Reagan’s legacy would forever be entwined with what was referred to as the Iran-Contra Affair. 

After the most disputed election in our nation’s history, a son of a President, for only the third time in our nation’s history was inaugurated on January 20, 2001.    Ten years ago today President George W. Bush; with his father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush looking on, became the 43rd President of the United States. 

He had campaigned on a platform of lowering taxes, limiting government, improving America’s schools for its children along  with bringing about a more compassionate kind of conservatism.

He had passed a landmark tax cut early in his administration and appeared to be making good on his campaign promises to work to grow the American economy and guide it out of the downturn that was inherited from his predecessor.

Then, on a bright, sunny, September morning, while he was in a primary school classroom in Florida listening to children read, in an event meant to advance his education initiative, his Chief of Staff Andy Card, with the TV cameras recording the moment, whispered into his ear, “Mr. President, America is under attack”.  Nineteen young men, extremists from Islamic nations in the Middle East, had hijacked four airplanes:  Two had struck the World Trade Center, one plowed into the Pentagon, and one by the grace of God and because of the heroism of Americans on Flight 93, crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania, thus saving the intended target, thought to be the US Capitol from the same fate as the WTC and Pentagon that day.  Over 2000 Americans lost their lives that day in the worst attack on the American mainland.

From September 11, 2001 on, the Bush administration focused on the War on Terror.   In a speech before a joint session of Congress, he put the world on notice, with the words:  “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  For the next seven years, throughout the rest of his Presidency, George W. Bush focused on the safety of the American people to insure that there would never be another terrorist attack on the American homeland.  He was determined to bring these ‘evil-doers’ to justice, and with the might of the American military, he brought an end to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that harbored and encouraged the terrorist training camps where the 19 hijackers of the Sept. 11 flights had honed their skills.  That fight in Afghanistan continues to this day in what has become the longest war in American history.

In 2003, with intelligence reports from several corroborating sources that there were weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, President Bush with the support of the US Congress gave the order for US troops to invade and occupy Iraq.  The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein twelve years earlier had invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, leading to Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, the military action ordered by his father, President George HW Bush, and with President Bush 43’s Vice-President, Dick Cheney as the Secretary of Defense.

During the Iraq War of President Bush 43, Saddam was captured by American forces, and then tried in an Iraqi court and sentenced to death for his crimes against the Iraqi people.    

The Iraqi War would be the defining and most frustrating issue for Bush.  The American people grew increasingly skeptical of the mission there, and in 2006, handed President Bush a midterm election defeat returning control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats for the first time since 1994.

Despite his campaign promise of a smaller, less intrusive federal government, he oversaw the largest expansion of the federal government in our nation’s history.  The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has become one of the largest bureaucracies in the federal government.

As Barack Obama was inaugurated two years ago today, the outgoing Republican President, George W. Bush handed over the power and responsibility of leading not only America, but the free world, to his Democratic successor.  It is without a doubt a wonder to the rest of the world that at the stroke of noon on January 20 every four years, with the utterance of an oath, the peaceful transfer of power occurs often between political opponents.   The only gun fire to be heard is that from the 21-gun salute from the assembled ceremonial military units.

It is one of the most remarkable displays of what our republic is about, and what our Founders envisioned some 240 years ago as they established a new nation. 

The office of the Presidency has been held by a variety of people  over the years from varying backgrounds, having differing temperaments, and possessing methods of leadership that cover the gamut from laissez-faire to that of an iron fist.  But what each of these people know, is that when their term is ended, when the 4 to 8 years that they occupy the White House will come to an end, they will sit in a chair on the steps of the US Capitol as their successor recites the Presidential oath and observe as a new leader takes the reins.

This display of a peaceful transfer of power is the envy of the world and what makes America truly exceptional.  On this January 20, the 50th, 30th, and 10th anniversary of the inaugurations of Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and George W. Bush, respectively, we should celebrate from where we have come and what is still to be for this American nation, and honor that which sets us apart from the rest of the world.

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