George! Thomas! Barack?

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON

Wondering if his publisher liked the manuscript of "Les Miserables," Victor Hugo sent a terse note: "?" His publisher replied as tersely: "!" That was the nation's response to Barack Obama's inaugural address, even though -- or perhaps because -- one of his themes, delicately implied, was that Americans do not just have a problem, they are a problem.

"The time has come," he said pointedly, "to set aside childish things." Things, presumably, such as the pandemic indiscipline that has produced a nation of households as overleveraged as is the government from which the householders demand more goods and services than they are willing to pay for. "We remain," the president said, "a young nation." Which, even if true, would be no excuse for childishness. And it is not true. The United States is older, as a national polity, than Germany or Italy, among many others.

Obama's first words -- "I stand here today humbled by the task before us" -- echoed the first paragraph of the first inaugural address. George Washington confessed "anxieties" and adopted the tone of a servant "called" to crushing duties:

"The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who ... ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson in his address said that "the sum of good government" is not very much -- to be "wise and frugal," to "restrain men from injuring one another," to "leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits" and to "not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

Now, however, the ubiquitous federal government struggles with tasks, from managing the economy to inspiriting the citizenry, that were not considered government tasks until long after 1789. …