by Rhetorix - January 25th, 2001
The U.S. Presidential Inauguration of January 20th, 2001 offered us everything that we expect from such festivities: military bands, church choirs, rousing speeches, happy incoming leaders, grumpy outgoing leaders, dances, walks down the avenue-in fact, it offered everything except the one very important act from which the Inauguration gets its name.
First, some history:
The Roman relationship between men and gods was a contractual one: the ancients prayed, kept their vows, and made the proper sacrifices, and the gods gave them what they asked for (not necessarily what they wanted-a small but vital difference.) The gods signaled their willingness to accept or reject a contract through signs: the shape of a sacrificial pig's liver, the eating habits of sacred chickens, the direction of flight of a bird seen before an important event. It is from this last example that we have the word inauguration, for this word comes to us from inauguro/inaugurare, the Latin verb for "to take omens from the flight of birds."
Before an important event-a wedding, business venture, battle, the start of a new administration, someone would look for flying birds, taking special care to see only birds that were flying in directions that signaled the approval of the gods. This bird-spotter would report the sightings to the augur, a rich, important Roman elected to that position. The augur would interpret the birds' actions into the divine will of the gods upon the day's event.
The position of augur required a political career that included high office, a devotion to the forms of the state religion (belief was not required), and a willingness to appear at any and all public ceremonies ready to make the will of the gods known to all. Underlings kept track the myriad ways that divine will could be manifested by flight direction-all the augur had to do was repeat the appropriate one at the right moment.
Does this sound a bit, dare I say, open to fraud? You bet your toga it does. The Romans were a pragmatic people and rarely let small matters like divine will spoil their plans. Claudius Pulcher, upon learning that his flock of sacred chickens would not eat before a major naval battle, proclaimed, "If they won't eat, perhaps they will drink" and he had them tossed into the sea. (The gods got even; Claudius lost.) Sometimes, the person reporting lied about what the birds did. The augur, being a priest and a member of the senatorial class, didn't check the actions himself; he remained apart from the dirty work. Any falsification was left to some nobody like the public chicken feeder, who, if caught, was killed to appease the gods for the defamation of their divine sign.
So, here is what this year's Inauguration should have had:
At dawn on the 20th, all civil servants (GS-3 and lower) are sent out to scan the eastern horizon for flying birds. Any sightings made are sent to the Office of National Augury, where dozens of interns pour over the Sacred Petersen Guides to identify the birds and match them to their usual flight behaviors. Any discrepancies are reported to the Chief of Bird Flight Discernment, who makes the final determination as to which is a true sign of divine will and which are merely sleepy birds.
The CBFD meets with the leaders of the House, Senate, the incoming President and Vice-President, and the outgoing President and Vice-President, to decide what sort of divine will is required. Their decision is handled to the Chief Augur, who then steps before a podium-load of microphones to make the announcement:
"Today, just before dawn and just over the Reflecting Pool, a black-capped chickadee was seen flying in a northwesterly direction. This shows that God approves of the choice of the people (or the US Supreme Court, for those of you who think that the election was a farce) and that God will bless the events of today. By this proclamation, I do not mean to exclude those of us who do not believe in any gods at all or those of us who acknowledge that they do not know whether there is a god or not nor does this proclamation exclude those who prefer that God be a Goddess or those who would prefer that God would stay in church and not bother us during affairs of state. To those people, I ask that they heard this words to say 'Hey-your beliefs are also special and I know that God affirms your right to believe them. Have a nice day."
Of course, to make this happen, we need someone who likes the public spotlight, who has held high public office, who is esteemed by many, who can say many things to many people at the same time, and who isn't afraid to step a few feet away from the truth. Ex-presidents seeking to apply may send their resumes to the Office of National Augury.