Archive for Sunday, November 28, 2004

Inaugural speakers struggle for something profound

November 28, 2004


— Ask not why so few inaugural speeches resonate long after they are given.

History always will remember Abraham Lincoln's appeal to the "better angels of our nature." History probably has forgotten President Bush's flowery declaration four short years ago that an "angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm."

When Bush delivers his second inauguration address on Jan. 20, he may be hard pressed to say something truly for the ages. Not many presidents have, especially the second time around.

Among the 43 presidents, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are the acknowledged greats in inaugural oratory. In perilous times, their power of communication produced transcendent words that inspired not only those who heard them, but generations to come.

Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson once boiled down the essentials of an inauguration address to these qualities: lofty, nonpartisan, visionary, anchored by basic principles.

Inaugural speeches follow a pattern of sorts, with common elements that date back to the first one.

Among them are:

  • Humility. Men of oversized egos see fit to express humility in their inauguration speeches. Thomas Jefferson opened and closed his first inaugural speech with an elaborate account of his shortcomings and asked people to forgive all the mistakes he was about to make.
  • John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the
oath of office at the Capitol in Washington in 1961.

    John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington in 1961.

  • Confidence. No matter how bad things are, an inaugural speech must promise better times are coming.

This can be done simply: "Can we solve the problems confronting us?" Ronald Reagan asked. "Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic 'yes.'"

Or, it can be done with a bit more panache: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America," Bill Clinton said.

Or, with FDR's boldness: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

  • Lofty words. Phrases such as "a new breeze is blowing" -- from the first President Bush's speech -- are a dime a dozen. What separates word candy from solid gold is what keeps speechwriters up at night.

In his new book, "Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America," historian Thurston Clarke attributes authorship of that address's most memorable passages to JFK himself. "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."

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