Glenn Allen Youngkin will take the oath of office as Virginia’s 74th governor on Saturday with all the pomp and ceremony that the state can muster, which, being Virginia, is considerable.
Constitutionally, that’s all that’s required. Tradition, of course, requires much more. Fancy dress. The ceremonial turning over of the keys to the executive mansion. A parade. And, of course, an inaugural address.
For as much stock as we put in inaugural addresses, the inconvenient truth is that they are often overrated.
Pop quiz: It’s been less than a year since Joe Biden’s inaugural address, but how many of us can remember anything he said? That’s not a knock on Biden, just a reflection of reality. At the national level, we’ve had 46 presidential inaugurations but only four are remembered in popular culture.
Abraham Lincoln in 1861 addressed a nation that was already pulling apart with words that ring true to this very day, reminding Americans to heed “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln, who possessed more equanimity than most of us, returned to these thoughts in his 1865 address, promising “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” John Wilkes Booth, who was not one of those better angels, felt differently about the malice part.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 gave us “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” John Kennedy in 1961 urged us to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” After that, presidential rhetoric runs thin, although there is a fifth that should be better remembered. Thomas Jefferson in 1801, speaking after a particularly bitter campaign, specifically reached out to his opponents: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” We could stand a little more Jeffersonian thinking today.
Gubernatorial inaugural addresses are even less remembered. I’ve spent four years quoting Ralph Northam’s 2018 address where he lamented “crumbling schools” – and then pointing out how slow Virginia has been to actually do something about that – but the rest of the speech escapes my mind. What I do remember from Northam’s inauguration was not the speech but the diversity of the ceremony that seemed a very intentional rebuke of President Donald Trump. The Pledge of Allegiance was delivered by a group of Muslim Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from Northern Virginia, with some of the girls wearing hijabs.
The most famous – and best – inaugural address in Virginia history was delivered by Linwood Holton in 1970. The worst was delivered by Lindsay Almond just 12 years prior, in 1958.
It will be hard for Youngkin to match either of those.
Those with a keen sense of history will note that both of those governors came through Roanoke, but they represented two very different strains of our history, with Almond resisting change and Holton embracing it. Holton famously declared “the era of defiance is behind us,” words now inscribed in the stonework in Holton Plaza in downtown Roanoke. That defiance he referenced was declared by many others before him, but most notably by Almond. He took office amid the state’s Massive Resistance to integration and devoted most of his address to how he would use the powers of his office to make sure that not a single Black child would ever sit in a classroom with a white student. “I am convinced that there is not one political subdivision in Virginia where racially mixed schools can be conducted,” he declared. “A number of suggestions have been pressed upon me in the nature of a compromise but I find no area of compromise that might be usefully explored.” On the contrary, he asked for special powers to be able to shut down public schools if necessary to prevent integration.
His words were loudly applauded at the time – by what appears to be an all-white audience – although history now consigns Almond to something worse than oblivion, it consigns him to shame. You can view this sorry historical artifact of a speech here.
There are many ironies to Almond, whose story was told in the biography “Reluctant Rebel” by Roanoke Times reporters Ben Beagle and Ozzie Osborne (not to be confused with the Black Sabbath singer). If you can find a copy floating around the internet, or some used book store, I recommend it for people who want to understand that part of Virginia history. Almond gets the blame today for carrying out Massive Resistance; he got the blame then – at least from U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. and his adherents – for eventually backing down.
Another irony: While Almond delivered one of the most backward-looking inaugural addresses ever, he also delivered one of the most forward-looking. Almond spoke not just in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, but also in the aftermath of Sputnik. Once Almond got through declaring that schools would never be integrated under his watch, he then declared that schools must be improved. Specifically, “as never before, we must concern ourselves thoughtfully and critically with a reappraisal of what is taught.” Those are words Youngkin could easily borrow today. Almond declared – correctly – that “Russia attained her superiority in scientific achievement through her classrooms. We must meet the challenge to survival through ours.” In other words, more math and science education.
More than six decades later, the challenge remains the same, although today our main threats are economic and come from all around the world, though China is foremost among them. Youngkin spent much of the campaign talking about education and, once all the silliness over critical race theory is stripped away, he had some serious points to make about the academic rigor of some Virginia schools. As a businessman who has worked internationally, Youngkin surely must understand the nature of the current economy and what’s required to compete in it – and that those “crumbling schools” that his soon-to-be-predecessor referenced are both quite real and a obstacle to many localities producing the kind of workforce that can compete globally. Example: Schools where there’s only one electrical outlet in a classroom might have been sufficient in Almond’s day (when many of them were built) but aren’t in today’s technology-driven world.
Youngkin is politically indebted to rural Virginia; he will have to decide whether that debt should be repaid through the conservative equivalent of virtue-signalling, or whether it should be repaid in practical, businesslike ways that will really make a difference on the ground. His desire to have 20 charter schools is the former – perhaps interesting experiments in metro areas but not all that relevant in rural areas where bus rides may already be hours long and school choice seems a suburban conceit. They won’t do a thing to help make up the disparity between the state’s poorest localities and its most affluent. Embracing the regular calls by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, for a $4 billion bond issue would. So would endorsing a constitutional amendment to actually require equal schools in Virginia. A declaration like that would surely lift Youngkin’s inaugural address out of the gray muddle of Virginia inaugural addresses – especially if he actually meant it – but we shouldn’t expect anything quite so bold on Saturday.
Here’s a hint, though: If Youngkin talks about “crumbling schools,” he’ll invite four years of questions about what he’s going to do about them. On the other hand, if he doesn’t, he’ll invite four years of questions of why he’s not doing anything about them.
Here’s another measure of what Youngkin could say Saturday: Sixty-four years later, we’re still lamenting Almond’s inaugural address as an awful moment in Virginia history, and 52 years later we’re still holding up Holton’s inaugural address as a shining moment. Those inaugural addresses were undeniably consequential, just in different ways. Come next week, will we even remember what Youngkin says on Saturday?