I have been examining the inaugural addresses of all the presidents to see how their description of the American project has changed over the years. In the course of this, I ran across an intriguing finding: Presidents don’t talk about their duty nearly as much as they used to. From Washington through McKinley, every single one of the twenty presidents who gave an inaugural address used duty or its plural, referring to it in relation to the duties imposed on him by the office in at least one of them. Among the eighteen presidents who have given inaugural addresses since McKinley, only five have done so. From Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration through Barack Obama’s second, only one president has used the word — George W. Bush in 2005. That’s sixty years of almost total silence about duty from our presidents as they began their terms of office.
I checked Google’s Ngram Viewer (a wonderful data toy you should check out if you aren’t familiar with it) and found that the use of duty in American English has declined since 1789, whereas the use of responsibility has gone up and the use of obligation has been steady for a long time. So maybe presidents are still talking about their duty, but using different words. I reexamined the inaugural addresses looking for responsibility and obligation along with duty (and their plurals). In all cases, I counted a use only if the president was referring to himself or to the office. But not much changed. Presidents have used responsibility or its plural forty times since Hoover used it to refer to his own responsibilities in 1929, but only Jimmy Carter used it in the same sense. Obligation was last used in that sense by FDR in 1937. Adding still more possibilities (“trust,” in the sense of a responsibility, “service”) didn’t change the overall picture: A decline in the use of such language, gradual in the nineteenth century and precipitous in the last half of the twentieth, even when usage is expressed per 1,000 words of inaugural text.
I’m not saying that presidents aren’t aware of their duty anymore. But the change in presidents’ presentation of self to the electorate is unmistakable, and it goes in a direction away from “I am a citizen like you, with the most profound duty to serve the Constitution, not my own personal vision of what the Nation needs.” I like that attitude in a president. I wish we had more of it.
And what were the lonely uses of duty and responsibility by Presidents George W. Bush and James Earl Carter, Jr.? Bush’s was to say that “My most solemn duty is to protect this Nation and its people from further attacks and emerging threats.” Carter’s was delicious: “You have given me a great responsibility — to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are.” Who else but Jimmy Carter could have listed first among his responsibilities “to stay close to you,” and when else but the seventies could he have said it? Bring on The Carpenters.
By way of comparison, here is an earlier president presenting himself to his countrymen:
[T]he 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 (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.
His name? George Washington.