Conversations in Management: Oath of Office

    “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Oath of Office.

Garfield_InaugurationThe Constitution only requires the president-elect to take an oath of office before beginning their administration. But politicians being politicians, all have felt compelled to say a few words following the oath. Washington takes the prize for the shortest inaugural address. In his second inaugural address at just 135 words, he essentially said that should he violate his oath free feel to “upbraid” him for it. Actually, not a bad sentiment for a president. The longest address was delivered by William Henry Harrison. He spoke for an hour and 45 minutes in a snowstorm, managed in that time to say little, caught pneumonia and died 32 days later. Severe consequences for a poorly conceived and delivered speech. (Bloviators take note!) In fairness, every president tries to use the address to put their presidency into some kind of context. They often look back at what’s been and try to express a vision for what they hope is to come. Though generally unmemorable beyond the immediate news cycle, they’re at least earnestly delivered and honestly felt. The addresses, however, can stir us long after the incumbent has left office. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is an unrivaled masterpiece. Coming at the end of an incomprehensibly bloody Civil War, he spoke of binding the nation’s wounds and pleaded for, “…malice toward none, with charity for all….” Read these words while standing in the Lincoln Memorial and you can’t help but be deeply moved. At a different crisis point for the country, Franklin Roosevelt intoned that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was addressing a people staring into the maw of an unrivaled economic disaster that would cripple some and devastate many. The confidence and firm resolve expressed in that speech averted panic and steadied the nation. Three decades later, John Kennedy spoke to an America now grown to a world super power. It was a nation rich beyond belief. But instead of calling Americans to enjoy the largesse, he called them to action—“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Those were the “greats” but sometimes a forgotten president expressed something worth remembering.  James Garfield’s address was three thousand words long and precisely divided into three equal parts. The Constitution was nearing 100 years old and Garfield spent the first third of his speech discussing its guiding strength and its importance for the future. He then dedicated the next third of his speed to civil rights. He deplored efforts to marginalize black Americans, countered arguments for their disenfranchisement and looked forward to a day—not too far into the future— when race wouldn’t matter. In the final third he spoke of enterprise. These were the practical matters of state including monetary policy, agriculture, industry and a swipe at polygamy. But these practical issues were discussed as meaningful only in the context of the rule of law and civil rights.

So what have these presidents taught us? Be kind, be brave, be selfless, be just and be fair. Do all these things and be prosperous. I guess inaugural addresses aren’t boring after all.          —Ebert 

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