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Obama's speech: An inaugural past not hard to surpass

Many inaugural addresses have droned on, dwelling on Roman history or forgotten legislative quarrels.

By Staff writer / January 15, 2009

The view from the platform where U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn-in and deliver his inaugural address is seen after a rehearsal for the ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 11, 2009.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

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US presidents have delivered 55 inaugural addresses, and if there is a single word that best describes most of these speeches, it may be “stupefying.”

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Yes, some of the most memorable political phrases in American history have come from inaugurals. “With malice toward none, with charity for all....” (Lincoln). “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (FDR). “Ask not what your country can do for you....” (JFK).

But the ones you learned about in high school are pretty much it. Many of the others drone on, dwelling on Roman history or forgotten legislative quarrels. Their prose generally is not good. Verbs wander about in search of proper subjects. Bad metaphors and gangs of adjectives block the way.

For President-elect Obama, the good news here is that on Jan. 20, he may find it easy to outshine many of his predecessors. His ability to communicate, after all, seems to be one of his political strengths.

“Historians generally say there have been four very important and memorable inaugural addresses. I maintain this will be the fifth,” says Gerald Shuster, an expert on presidential rhetoric and political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

There’s no requirement in the Constitution that newly elected presidents deliver an address at their swearing-in ceremony. The practice simply follows on a precedent established by George Washington, who felt he had a duty to express his appreciation for the honor of being the country’s first elected chief executive.

Washington asked fellow Virginian James Madison for help in drafting the speech. Madison encouraged him to mention that the Constitution should be amended to include a bill of rights. Washington did so – greatly aiding passage of the Bill of Rights through Congress.

This remains perhaps the single greatest legislative accomplishment that can be traced to inaugural rhetoric.

“It was a momentous event,” write University of Illinois history professor Robert Remini and Kean University historian Terry Golway in a recent essay on inaugurals.

Since then, the dreary inaugurals have piled up, uncountable. Well, that’s not entirely true: They can be counted, if you can stay awake long enough to get through them.

“I put the number of bad ones at about 30, maybe 35,” says Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Written for another time

To be fair, part of the problem here is us, not the presidents of the past. Until the 20th century, inaugurals were written to be read, not seen on television or heard on radio. The concept of sound bites was unknown. Citizens had longer attention spans and were used to dense, closely argued political speeches.

Thus they would not have been put off by the classical history that William Henry Harrison included in his inaugural (“The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens....”).

They might have been put off by the length, though. Harrison’s speech remains the longest inaugural and is widely considered the worst, in part for its wandering arguments and in part because Harrison came down with a cold following its delivery and died.

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