Once every four years, a President is inaugurated. The President gives an inaugural address, which is covered by the TV networks. If most daytime viewers had their preferences, the networks would not pre-empt the soap operas or Oprah. The coverage is a revenue-loser for the networks. The festivities are prime time TV news that evening. The New York Times reproduces the inaugural address the next morning. Almost nobody reads it. The event fades rapidly from the memory of everyone who was not part of the event.
This is a good thing. Paying a lot of attention to political speeches, let alone political parades, is a mistake most of the time. This is especially true of second inaugural addresses. The only famous one is Lincoln’s, and he was dead a month later. His famous phrase, "with malice toward none, with charity toward all," was repudiated for the next decade by Congress during what came to be known as Reconstruction.
In the twentieth century, only two inaugural addresses stand out, Franklin Roosevelt’s first address and Jack Kennedy’s. Kennedy’s famous phrase is remembered more as the last hurrah of a now-lost vision than as a serious proposal: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." The can-do political liberalism of Kennedy’s inaugural address in retrospect was overwhelmed by reality, first by his assassination and then by his successor’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
What my generation remembers about that phrase was the military draft and the quagmire in Vietnam, the first war that the United States clearly lost, and did so on national television. We do not remember the Peace Corps, except possibly Tom Hanks’ version in Volunteers. If you want two images that serve as the grave markers of Kennedy’s inaugural address, think of the rider-less horse and the casket, and think of the photo of that last helicopter out of Saigon. "Ask not" by 1993 had become, "Don’t ask, don’t tell."
We remember Johnson as totally confident when he came into office, but invisible four years later at the Democrats’ national convention. We think of Nixon as confident when coming in both times, but ludicrous with his V sign as he flew away in a helicopter, disgraced. Politics had consumed its two most dedicated American worshipers: Johnson and Nixon. Ford is barely remembered: the only President who received no electoral votes prior to becoming President. His most memorable phrase: "I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln." Too bad he didn’t say it at his inaugural. That may be because he didn’t give an inaugural address — a tradition I favor. Carter’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue is remembered, but mostly as a stunt. What he said at the inaugural isn’t remembered at all. None of the inaugural addresses since Kennedy’s are part of the American heritage of rhetoric.
Roosevelt’s is remembered, mainly because of its phrase, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." In the context of 25% unemployment, the closing of thousands of rural banks, and the seeming imperviousness of the depression to government action, that was a ludicrous statement. In fact, later in the speech, Roosevelt said as much, but that is not what we recall of his rhetoric.
What was most significant about that inaugural address was that Roosevelt announced what he intended to do. He then spent the next 12 years doing the opposite. In the name of the People, he solidified control by the elite he represented yet pretended to despise. By the time of his death in 1945, he could well have said, "Mission accomplished!" Nothing that has happened in Washington in the last 60 years has significantly challenged his revolution, which in fact was a consolidation.
A CALL TO REVOLUTION
Roosevelt’s 1933 address announced in plain language a Constitutional revolution. That revolution had been launched by Lincoln in the Civil War, had escalated under Teddy Roosevelt, and had been solidified by Wilson during World War I. It involved the centralization of power by the Federal government, power that was exercised primarily by the President and the executive bureaucracy. Roosevelt in 1933 faced a national crisis, and he called on the voters to accept whatever he might do. With only one major exception, they did. The exception was his plan to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. But the Court buckled, and ratified his acts after 1937.
Late in the speech, Roosevelt praised the Constitution. He did so as a send-up of his threat to ignore it.
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
Roosevelt offered an explanation for the depression. He demonized the bankers. This, of course, had been part of the Democrats’ political tradition ever since William Jennings Bryan hijacked the Party with his Cross of Gold speech in 1896. Roosevelt announced:
And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.
Here was the time-honored analysis of Marxists and socialists: nature as bountiful but perversely restrained by the institutions of capitalism. It was time to identify these unscrupulous manipulators.
Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
Money changers. Where had Americans heard that term before? In church. Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple. Roosevelt made it clear that he was prepared to do the same.
True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money.
Quite true. The Federal Reserve System, created under Wilson in 1913, had the power to control the money supply through the control of credit, mainly through the purchase of U.S. government debt. But the public was not borrowing in 1933. Commercial banks were failing. Within days of the inaugural, Roosevelt unilaterally shut the banks, fearing more bank runs. (The bank "holiday" idea had been Herbert Hoover’s, as Hoover insisted in his autobiography, but Roosevelt had refused to support Hoover’s plan.)
The Federal Reserve System had been heralded by its proponents as the engine of financial stability, the guarantor of continuity of credit. Yet the nation in 1933 was facing the worst depression in its history. The FED’s monopoly over the money supply granted by the Federal government in 1913 in the name of financial stability had failed to work. But Roosevelt did not target the FED in his speech. He targeted commercial bankers, who were in no position to offset the public’s unwillingness to borrow money in the face of a 33% fall in prices, 1929—33. Few businessmen wanted to borrow dollars when they might have to pay off the loan with appreciating dollars.
Voters then, like voters today, did not understand central banking. They understood rhetoric about profit-seeking money changers.
Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
ONE OF THEIR OWN
The great irony of this speech was lost on the listeners, and has been lost on, or buried by, the history textbook writers and even the historical monograph writers. Franklin Roosevelt had been one of these money changers. He had been the well-paid agent of the bond industry prior to his election as Governor of New York in 1928. Beginning in 1921, after he had lost his position as Undersecretary of the Navy under Wilson, and after he had gone down to defeat with Cox as the Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920, Roosevelt became Vice-President of Fidelity Deposit Company of Maryland.
He had gone to Groton, the elite prep school. He had gone to Harvard. He was the heir of the Delano fortune, which had been made in part by selling opium in China. He was a rich only son of a wealthy New York family.
His inaugural address looked as if it was the product of a rich man who had seen the moral light. On the contrary, it was designed to divert the public’s attention from a new deal for big business, which would strengthen the hand of the biggest corporations, whose managers desperately wanted price floors and protection against new competition.
This story was told in detail by Antony Sutton three decades ago: Wall Street and FDR (Arlington House, 1975), which is now available free of charge on-line. The historical profession paid no attention to this book, which was published by a conservative publishing house. As Sutton wrote at the time, the vast majority of historians of Roosevelt’s administration have been FDR apologists. The ones who know the story of his Wall Street connections deliberately have concealed this information, knowing full well that the public had been misled about Roosevelt’s background as a "money changer." His Wall Street connections before his election as Governor make his inaugural address appear as a rhetorical deception without precedent in American history, which in fact it was.
Roosevelt had run the American Construction Council in the mid-1920s. It was basically an industry trade council dedicated to price-fixing arrangements. The A.C.C. had originally been proposed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Hoover and FDR were well acquainted with each other. This, too, the public has never suspected. Both men shared the same economic outlook: the Federal government as the source of economic order and protection. Both men were backed by the same Wall Street interests.
This was nothing new in 1932. Except for Bryan, who was a Populist and defender of direct government ownership of business, Wall Street had controlled the nomination of every major party Presidential candidate since the end of the Civil War. It still does.
Roosevelt had received donations for his 1928 campaign from Wall Street financiers, most notably Joe Kennedy. And, as Sutton shows, Roosevelt repaid them by creating a series of New Deal agencies whose primary function was to save the large corporations by allowing price-fixing under government authorization. The Supreme Court kept declaring these agencies unconstitutional, which is why Roosevelt proposed the Court-packing scheme in 1937 as a way to get a pro-New Deal majority on the Court.
I knew Sutton personally. His scholarship was impeccable. His three volumes on the technology of the Soviet Union, 1917—1965, showed that the USSR had developed very little technology of its own, outside of armaments. Its technology was either stolen from the West or bought from the West. The myth of Soviet economic productivity was admitted by scholars only after 1989, when the USSR’s leaders admitted that it was facing bankruptcy. Sutton’s first book on Soviet technology received almost no attention from the academic guild, even in journals that specialized in economic history. There was a systematic blackout on volumes 2 and 3, despite the fact that the set had been published by the Hoover Institution. (I pointed this out in my Foreword to his book, The Best Enemy Money Can Buy, 1986.)
His book on Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution, available free on-line, received no academic attention, nor did Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, also available free on-line. He was the first historian to publish a detailed history of Skull & Bones, the Yale University secret society that has produced three presidents (Taft and the two Bushes). That book, too, went down the academic memory hole.
For some of you, this is the first time you have heard of any of this. This indicates how successful the blackout has been. Before the Internet, it was easy for the academic guild to bottle up studies like Sutton’s. It no longer is.
The long-term connections between American big business and the official enemy nations of the United States are not discussed publicly. Occasionally, this neglect gets to me.
In 1984, I attended a closed dinner meeting of the leaders of the American Right, where the organization gave an award to John Lehman, Ph.D., the Secretary of the Navy. The man who handed him this award was his former roommate, although we attendees did not know this. Lehman had been one of Henry Kissinger’s aides before he became Secretary of the Navy. He is still in the news: a member of the 9/11 Commission. He is an investment banker, as his Web site reveals. Anyway, at that awards meeting, he gave a brief speech on the build-up of the Soviet navy. Knowing what I knew, I started to walk out. There are limits to my tolerance. But it was a large room. I didn’t make it to the door before I heard him criticize Congressional opponents of a larger U.S. Navy. This got to me: the Russians this, the Russians that. I turned around and yelled, "If they are our enemies, why do we feed them?" There was silence. So, just in case anyone missed my point, I said again, "Why do we feed them?"
Of course, I could have mentioned the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council (USTEC), the highly secretive association of the largest American corporations that were trading with the Soviet Union, and which, despite partial government funding, refused to provide a list of its members. The government also refused to reveal this information, despite Freedom of Information Act requests. I had extensive files on this organization. But no one in the audience, other than Lehman, would have known what I was talking about.
I could also have mentioned the fact that the U.S. government in 1972 had authorized the export to the USSR of the unique, patented ball bearing machine tools that alone made possible MIRVed nuclear warheads, a fact that Tony Sutton had revealed in his 1973 book, National Suicide: Military Aid to the Soviet Union (Arlington House). That fact remains unknown in American conservative circles, over three decades later. So, I skipped that, too. But the fact that our farmers had been feeding the Russians ever since Herbert Hoover’s days under Harding was well known. So, I asked the obvious question. Why do we feed our enemies? Lehman mumbled. I left.
Sutton had the right answer. They were the best enemies our money could buy.
So, all in all, I don’t get too excited about Presidential inaugural addresses. I figure they’re important for the President and his immediate family, mandatory for senior staffers on the White House’s payroll, and good copy opportunities for editorial writers.
Like the State of the Union Address, no problem is ever mentioned which does not have a multi-billion dollar government solution at hand. This means ignoring two kinds of problems: problems that really don’t require government spending to solve them and problems that cannot be solved despite government spending.
The test of the relevance of an inaugural address is whether the problems addressed in it are solved four years later, and the programs created to solve them are no longer being funded. "Mission accomplished!"
That’ll be the day.
January 22, 2005