Richard C. Harwood, President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation The inauguration is an opportunity for the President to declare a path for the nation for the next four years. At its best, the rhetoric of the inauguration calls us to action – from President Kennedy imploring citizens to “ask what you can do for your country” to President Bush asking us in 2000 to be “citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character.” The theme of this year’s inauguration is, “Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service”. As we honor the service and sacrifices of the men and women of the armed forces, it is important to remember the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg – that we all must be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us” for which soldiers died on the field of battle and gave their “last full measure of devotion.” Inauguration week this year begins with a day celebrating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King built on the words and ideas of Lincoln, turning them into actions and helping to write a new American story. While many in public life seek to manipulate their sound bites to cut through the clutter on the evening news, Dr. King’s genuine words still resonate with people as our nation seeks to fulfill its ideals. At the close of the last election season, both President Bush and Senator Kerry called for Americans to put aside their differences and unite. These were noble words, but they rang hollow after a campaign season riddled by a narrative of division and divisive tactics. Make no mistake, there are real differences of opinion about how best to face the challenges of the nation; but the way in which both sides exploited these divisions at every turn of the campaign, drove people further from public life and from each other. Over the course of my work in public life, I have observed Americans’ response to politics turn from anger and frustration to retreat – withdrawing from a public square that can thrive only with their participation. Too many of us have turned away from political leaders, the news media, and even from each other.
On January 20, President Bush will lay out his vision for his next term. It is time to set an agenda for reversing the people’s retreat and overcoming the pervasive narrative of division if we as a people are to address the unfinished work of the nation. This inauguration week, in the enduring spirit of King and Lincoln, let us start a new chapter of America’s story, one in which people can see, hear, and feel themselves once more.
At present the challenge facing us is where to begin. And so, I ask, what is the first line of this next chapter of America’s story?