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

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

Jim Bourg/Reuters
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.

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.”

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.

Due to this sad outcome, nobody remembers that in his speech Harrison also said, “under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.”

Other bad inaugural speeches of the past, in the judgment of many historians, include both made by Ulysses S. Grant. His second, in 1873, had a sort of boring peevishness about it, as he said, “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard.”

John Quincy Adams seemed similarly defensive. In his 1825 inaugural, he noted that he was “less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors.” Unfortunately for him, this was pretty much true.

And there is always the gold standard for bad presidents, James Buchanan, who in his 1857 inaugural, as the United States roiled with sectional turmoil, said of slavery, “May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end.”

Since the rise of mass media, presidential inaugurals have been more focused and more attuned to the need for a memorable phrase. That doesn’t mean they are all better.

It was Richard Nixon, after all, who in his first inaugural gave us this wonderful phrase: “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.”

Jimmy Carter got a burst of applause at his inaugural when he thanked predecessor Gerald Ford “for all he has done to heal our land” (think Watergate). But then he went into: “[I]t is that unique self-definition which has given us an exceptional appeal, but it also imposes on us a special obligation, to take on those moral duties....” On the whole, it was one of the windier efforts of modern times, to some historians.

The best inaugural addresses, on the other hand, are easy to identify. The two best may be by the same person – but that would be Lincoln, of course, the best writer of all the presidents, by far.

The ending of his second inaugural, in which he invokes the “mystic chords of memory” and the “better angels of our nature,” is among the touchstones of US literature.

“But the first quarter of that address was clunky. It’s the ending that is masterful,” says Professor Ribuffo.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first, with its “fear” line, is similarly famous. John F. Kennedy’s rhetorical brilliance still shines.

Other first-rate deliveries

Historians rate a few others as first-rate. Among them is Jefferson’s first inaugural, in which following the first transition of power from one party to another he called on citizens to “unite with one heart and mind.”

Woodrow Wilson’s first in 1913 was similarly bipartisan in spirit.

In the end, the era can make the address, as much as words. Lincoln, FDR, JFK – all were facing dire national crises, whether the Civil War, the Depression, or the cold war.

Mr. Obama similarly seems poised to take power at a hinge in America’s history.

“Look at the circumstances facing those famous presidents. Obama is facing the same thing,” says Mr. Shuster of the University of Pittsburgh.

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