Dubya's Inaugural Address: Linked To The Wrong One-Termer

January 21, 2001

George W. Bush is the 4th American President to be elected under "unusual" circumstances. John Quincy Adams in 1824 was alleged to have conspired with Henry Clay to swing the latter's electoral votes to Adams in a "corrupt bargain" that ended up with Clay being appointed Secretary of State; in 1876, a 15-person tribunal consisting of members of Congress and Supreme Court justices declared popular vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes the winner in the electoral vote over Samuel Tilden; and in 1888 Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college against Grover Cleveland. Adams, Hayes, and Harrison--in varying degrees--all made reference in their inaugural addresses to the disputed election that made them President or the need for electoral reform. George W. Bush, in contrast, in his speech neither mentioned the disputed election nor did he call for electoral reforms. Curiously, while Dubya's speech showed no links to the previously mentioned one-term Presidents, its themes of "compassion, courage, civility, and character" did reflect an obvious link to another one-term President: George Bush the First.

Let us take a brief look at the Adams, Hayes, and Harrison inaugurals before we take our digs at Dubya.

John Quincy Adams, before W. Bush the only son of a former President to attain the high office, was also a trained rhetorician. Steeped deeply in the teachings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine on eloquence, Adams' speeches were shrouded in classical schemes and tropes. Understanding the anger surrounding the cirucumstances of his elections, Adams the rhetor in his 1825 inaugural acknowledged the circumstances and pledged to do his best regardless:

"Fellow-citizens, you are acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the recent election, which have resulted in affording me the opportunity of addressing you at this time. You have heard the exposition of the principles which will direct me in the fulfillment of the high and solemn trust imposed upon me in this station. Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence. Intentions upright and pure, a heart devoted to the welfare of our country, and the unceasing application of all the faculties allotted to me to her service are all the pledges that I can give for the faithful performance of the arduous duties I am to undertake. To the guidance of the legislative councils, to the assistance of the executive and subordinate departments, to the friendly cooperation of the respective State governments, to the candid and liberal support of the people so far as it may be deserved by honest industry and zeal, I shall look for whatever success may attend my public service; and knowing that "except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain," with fervent supplications for His favor, to His overruling providence I commit with humble but fearless confidence my own fate and the future destinies of my country." [italics added]

Notwithstanding Adams' pleas, he was never able to gain the confidence of the citizenry, and in 1828 he was defeated for re-election by General Andrew Jackson--whom Adams had beaten 4 years earlier in the corrupt bargain election.

The 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes was up until that time the election most fraught with charges of corruption. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, and appeared to lose the electoral vote also until the votes in 3 states (including Florida) were challenged. When the 15-member tribunal selected Hayes as the winner, he was immediately dubbed "His Fraudulency," a label he was not able to remove throughout his entire presidency. Near the end of his 1877 inaugural speech, Hayes did acknowledge the electoral irregularity and in fact tried to establish the legitimacy of the tribunal that selected him--going as far as to argue that the manner in which the election was resolved was "an occasion for general rejoicing":

"Fellow-citizens, we have reached the close of a political contest marked by the excitement which usually attends the contests between great political parties whose members espouse and advocate with earnest faith their respective creeds. The circumstances were, perhaps, in no respect extraordinary save in the closeness and the consequent uncertainty of the result.

For the first time in the history of the country it has been deemed best, in view of the peculiar circumstances of the case, that the objections and questions in dispute with reference to the counting of the electoral votes should be referred to the decision of a tribunal appointed for this purpose.

That tribunal—established by law for this sole purpose; its members, all of them, men of long-established reputation for integrity and intelligence, and, with the exception of those who are also members of the supreme judiciary, chosen equally from both political parties; its deliberations enlightened by the research and the arguments of able counsel—was entitled to the fullest confidence of the American people. Its decisions have been patiently waited for, and accepted as legally conclusive by the general judgment of the public. For the present, opinion will widely vary as to the wisdom of the several conclusions announced by that tribunal. This is to be anticipated in every instance where matters of dispute are made the subject of arbitration under the forms of law. Human judgment is never unerring, and is rarely regarded as otherwise than wrong by the unsuccessful party in the contest.

The fact that two great political parties have in this way settled a dispute in regard to which good men differ as to the facts and the law no less than as to the proper course to be pursued in solving the question in controversy is an occasion for general rejoicing.

Upon one point there is entire unanimity in public sentiment—that conflicting claims to the Presidency must be amicably and peaceably adjusted, and that when so adjusted the general acquiescence of the nation ought surely to follow.

It has been reserved for a government of the people, where the right of suffrage is universal, to give to the world the first example in history of a great nation, in the midst of the struggle of opposing parties for power, hushing its party tumults to yield the issue of the contest to adjustment according to the forms of law.

Looking for the guidance of that Divine Hand by which the destinies of nations and individuals are shaped, I call upon you, Senators, Representatives, judges, fellow-citizens, here and everywhere, to unite with me in an earnest effort to secure to our country the blessings, not only of material prosperity, but of justice, peace, and union—a union depending not upon the constraint of force, but upon the loving devotion of a free people; 'and that all things may be so ordered and settled upon the best and surest foundations that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be established among us for all generations.'"[italics added]

Though Hayes was never able to gain the credibility necessary to conduct a successful administration, one of his presidential acts is worth noting: he appointed John Marshall Harlan to the Supreme Court. Harlan, one of the great progressives in the history of the court, was the lone dissenter in the 1896 case that legitimized American apartheid, Plessy v. Ferguson. Known for his principled dissents, Harlan also argued that the First Amendment should not be subject to restrictions by individual states, a view that did not become accepted by the full Supreme Court until 1925. If the measure of a presidency is the quality of Supreme Court Justices appointed--as some suggested during the 2000 campaign--then Hayes must be given high marks at least for the Harlan appointment.

In 1888, the incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated the Republican Benjamin Harrison by just over 100,000 votes in the popular count. However, the Republicans were able to win New York and Indiana--two states they lost in 1884--and Harrison thus carried the electoral vote by a 233-168 margin. The Republicans also, much like today, attained very slim margins in both houses of congress. Partisanship ruled the day, and only the parliamentary manuevering of Speaker Thomas "Czar" Reed allowed for the passage of any Republican legislation. By 1892 the country was in the grips of a financial panic, and Cleveland came back to defeat Harrison to become the first and only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

In his 1889 inaugural address, Benjamin Harrison made a general call for election reform:

"It is very gratifying to observe the general interest now being manifested in the reform of our election laws. Those who have been for years calling attention to the pressing necessity of throwing about the ballot box and about the elector further safeguards, in order that our elections might not only be free and pure, but might clearly appear to be so, will welcome the accession of any who did not so soon discover the need of reform. The National Congress has not as yet taken control of elections in that case over which the Constitution gives it jurisdiction, but has accepted and adopted the election laws of the several States, provided penalties for their violation and a method of supervision. Only the inefficiency of the State laws or an unfair partisan administration of them could suggest a departure from this policy.

It was clearly, however, in the contemplation of the framers of the Constitution that such an exigency might arise, and provision was wisely made for it. The freedom of the ballot is a condition of our national life, and no power vested in Congress or in the Executive to secure or perpetuate it should remain unused upon occasion. The people of all the Congressional districts have an equal interest that the election in each shall truly express the views and wishes of a majority of the qualified electors residing within it. The results of such elections are not local, and the insistence of electors residing in other districts that they shall be pure and free does not savor at all of impertinence.

If in any of the States the public security is thought to be threatened by ignorance among the electors, the obvious remedy is education. The sympathy and help of our people will not be withheld from any community struggling with special embarrassments or difficulties connected with the suffrage if the remedies proposed proceed upon lawful lines and are promoted by just and honorable methods. How shall those who practice election frauds recover that respect for the sanctity of the ballot which is the first condition and obligation of good citizenship? The man who has come to regard the ballot box as a juggler's hat has renounced his allegiance." [italics added]

Unfortunately, no election law reforms were accomplished during the Harrison administration, and in fact the 2000 election demonstrated in a painful way that United States elections are still in many ways mired in irregularites that would have been familiar to our 19th century ancestors. Still, Harrison must be given credit for at least addressing the problem, something that our new president for some reason did not feel compelled to do.

An attempt to comfort those who question the legitimacy of the 2000 election was conspicuously absent in the George W. Bush's inaugural speech. The closest he got was in his introductory remarks when he provided outgoing VP Gore with a benign "thank you for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace." Bush seemed completely ignorant of the fact that as he spoke, numerous demonstrations and counter-inaugurals were being held throughout the country, including one in Washington, D.C. With all his grand talk of "citizenship," Dubya did not see fit to even acknowledge the inaugural day activities of those sincerely interested in reforming the nation's election procedures.

As we have seen, Presidents Adams, Hayes, and Harrison all at some level addressed the electoral crisis the placed them in the White House. Why did Bush not join them? Perhaps he and his advisors, if they thought about this matter at all, believed it best to avoid even the slightest hint of comparison to one-term Presidents. If so, they then misunderstand completely the reasons for Adams, Hayes, and Harrison being relegated to one term each, and they missed a golden opportunity to place the administration on a moral high ground. Adams, et al did not go beyond one term in large part because their administrations did nothing to bring about significant election reform. Having each lost the popular vote, they in spite of that fact continued to pursue an agenda that was rejected by a majority of the voters. As such, by the time of the next election, Adams, Hayes, and Harrison had all succeeded in reinforcing the perception that they had been "selected" as president in opposition to the popular will. By not even being able to acknowledge large-scale dissatisfaction with the manner in which he was elected and refusing to make even a general call for election reform, Bush Jr. has placed himself firmly on the one-term road traveled by Adams, Hayes, and Harrison.

Not surprisingly, Bush's inaugural address did seem to be influenced by the inaugural of another one-term President: his father's 1989 effort. In that speech, Bush senior said that "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. . . . I am speaking of a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done. We must bring in the generations, harnessing the unused talent of the elderly and the unfocused energy of the young . . . I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding." Similary, Dubya tells us that "church and charity, synagogue and mosque," will have an "honored place in our plans and in our laws."

George Bush senior's "thousand points of light" and "kinder, gentler" rhetoric never really caught on, and he was trounced soundly in 1992. The Dubya crowd, as evidenced not only by the inaugural speech but also by the cabinet selections (lots of carryover from previous Republican administrations with a strong suspicion that daddy's Secretary of Defense Cheney is in fact the real president), seem unable to come to terms with the fact that George Bush senior and what he represents has been firmly rejected by the voters. And let's face it: had Al Gore not run such a miserable campaign and had Dubya not been lucky enough to be running in the age of the Rehnquist Court, Dubya too would have been rejected.

In short, George W. Bush in his inaugural address scrupulously avoided any allusions to the speeches of the first three "irregular," one-term Presidents. However, he did appear to model his speech on that of another one-termer, his father George senior. Adams, Hayes, and Harrison did not make election reform a priority of their administrations, and in the long run each failed to convince the public at large that their elections were legitimate. George W. Bush, by not even recognizing in his inaugural speech the terrible circumstances that led to his ascension to the White House, has provided little indication that he is willing to lead the nation along a path that will result in a guarantee that such election abuses will never happen again. Even worse, he seems intent on mimicing in word and deed the actions of his father, a man who cannot even blame the fact that he was rejected after one term on an irregular election.

Tony Palmeri welcomes your feedback

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