Let every nation know

Just 200 days from now, come rain, snow or shine, Americans will trek to school gymnasiums, community centers and church fellowship halls and select the man or woman they want to lead them for the next four years, possibly eight.  

Seventy-seven days later, that so-entrusted person, under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome, will stand below her on the West Front steps of the Capitol and be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Although throughout our history the dates and locations for taking that sacred oath have moved around a bit, the official words of the oath itself have remained exactly as George Washington spoke them in 1789 as he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.

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There is no small controversy surrounding whether Washington added “so help me God” at the end of his recitation, but the 35 words, as laid out in Article II, Section I of the Constitution, have become the foundation on which rests the peaceful transfer of power for the greatest democracy on the planet:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.”

Following the oath, the newly sworn president will offer hopes and dreams for the nation, and typically lay out the overall tone and vision of the new administration. And there, in the shadow of that glorious dome, there have been some absolutely spectacular speeches over the years.

Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, while the “new” dome was still being built, proclaimed to a nation at war with itself: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds …”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933, offered his downtrodden countrymen hope and belief in themselves, when they had lost both: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”

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Despite those historic offerings from two great American leaders, my favorite is the one delivered by John F. Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961.

Not facing a civil war or hard economic times, Kennedy used his particular challenge, the ominous Soviet nuclear threat, to remind the American people of their true strength and calling. In short, he defined for them how they should view themselves in this new, insecure world of nuclear weapons.

Kennedy stood on the snow-capped East Portico that cold Friday afternoon and challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Then, hinting at the fact that he was the first American president born in the 20th century, he added: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

But the part that intrigues me every time I read it: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Reading those inspiring words all these years later, and now especially after five years in Iraq, it makes you seriously wonder whether, if they were proclaimed in January 2009, by a Democrat or Republican, half the audience wouldn’t rise up and walk out in disgust.

I need to say this quite precisely so as not to be misunderstood on a very serious matter. It is always a tragedy when a young man or woman sacrifices his or her life in a foreign land in the name of freedom. It is absolutely tragic for the soldier’s family, and the nation that sent them to do their duty.

Yes. It is tragic, but there are things worth dying for. And freedom is one of them. Shelves will one day be filled with books trying to ascertain whether at this point in history the flames of freedom burned hot enough in the hearts of the Iraqi people to justify us sending our best and brightest to pay the ultimate price, bear the burden, meet the hardship.

The ultimate tragedy of this war, and this administration’s ineptitudes, is not that we erred on weapons of mass destruction or not being able to “fix it” after we “broke it.”

No. The real tragedy of this administration’s unskilled, deadly miscalculations is that we are now adrift in a sea of uncertainty about who we are as a people, what we believe and, more importantly, what we will do in the future about helping those people whose hearts truly beat for freedom.

A serious question that has a date with destiny on Jan. 20, 2009. The lady atop the dome will be watching.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.