As Barack Obama prepares to be sworn in, I recall an old National Lampoon record album – record albums, remember those? – from the final weeks of the Watergate scandal that comically suggested that President Richard Nixon be given a “swearing OUT” ceremony. There followed a series of blistering curses and calumnies directed at the soon-to-be departed and disgraced chief executive, delivered by someone impersonating the Reverend Billy Graham.

You have to wonder if amidst all the fanfare and hoopla Barack Obama isn’t quietly swearing a bit beneath his breath as he beholds what his about-to-be-predecessor has left for him.

Hercules mucking out the Stygian stables is as nothing to the heaps of bungle and botch confronting the next commander-in-chief.

Not that there’s anything new about freshly inaugurated presidents inheriting a mess.

George Washington, who took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall here in New York, at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, was taking over a newly independent, penniless collection of squabbling states that couldn’t even pay the soldiers who had won the Revolution.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had to negotiate a bailout from the Banks of New York and North America just to cover the salaries of the President and Congress.

When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, his hand on the same Bible Barack Obama will be using, the union was dissolving into Civil War. Jefferson Davis already had been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy just two weeks earlier.

Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, whose inert and inept presidency had done nothing to prevent the union’s imminent collapse told him, “If you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed,” then skipped town to his country estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

(A little more than four years later, he would drive his carriage to the Lancaster depot and stand in silent tribute as Lincoln’s funeral train passed.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, became President as the country was shivering and starving through the fourth winter of the Great Depression. Twenty-five percent of us were unemployed, stocks had plunged 75 percent after the Crash of ’29 and new investment and industrial production were non-existent.    

So it has been throughout America’s stormy past: two steps back for every three forward, periods of boundless optimism countered by times of fear and desperation, a government alternately depended upon or despised.

The crises Barack Obama faces may not seem as overpowering as those confronted by Lincoln or FDR, but perhaps no other President has taken over a government in such total and complete disrepair. For the last eight years, George Bush has ruled over a government the very concept of which he and his cronies loathed.

As right-winger Grover Norquist – once described by the Wall Street Journal as the Grand Central Station of conservatism – infamously opined in 2001, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

This, apparently, was the Bush team’s fantasy, although rather than reduction, they seemed to have favored a strategy of malign neglect and abuse to get the job done.

It’s not just the financial meltdown and Katrina and Iraq and Afghanistan and alleged violations of civil liberties and the Constitution – although especially chilling was this week ‘s Bob Woodward interview in the Washington Post with retired judge Susan J. Crawford, convening authority of military commissions – the woman in charge of determining which Guantanamo detainees should be brought to trial.

She told Woodward the military tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who allegedly was planning to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11.

"I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe," she said. "But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.”

A few weeks ago, the nonpartisan, investigative Center for Public Integrity released an in-depth report titled “Broken Government,” a chronicling of more than 125 of what the center calls “systematic failures across the breadth of federal government,” from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Federal Labor Relations Authority to NASA. You can read it at: http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/broken_government/.

“Many of the failures are rooted in recurring themes,” the Center reports. “Agency appointees selected primarily for ideology and loyalty, rather than competence; agency heads who overruled staff experts and suppressed reports that did not coincide with administration philosophy; agency-industry collusion; a bedrock belief in the wisdom of deregulation; extensive private outsourcing of public functions; a general failure to exercise government’s oversight responsibilities; and severely slashed budgets at understaffed agencies that often left them unable to execute basic administrative functions.”

Whew.

In its defense, the White House has turned out three tomes of its own, all of which may be read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/bushrecord/index.html.

One of them is titled, “100 Things Americans May Not Know about the Bush Administration Record.” The 100th thing is, “Directed Unprecedented Preparations for a Smooth Presidential Transition.” Not a moment too soon, some would say.

Time to move on.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at http://www.pbs.org/moyers.

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