What makes a memorable inaugural address? Consider the following: “We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction.”
Or: “Let us now join reason to faith and action to experience, to transform our unity of interest into a unity of purpose. For the hour and the day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred; not without difference of opinion but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations.”
Now this: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The first excerpt is from Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural address, the second from Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965, and the third, of course, is Lincoln’s second inaugural given in 1865, shortly before his assassination. It is probably the most famous presidential inaugural of all. Almost all of us recognized Lincoln’s words, but I doubt very few of you recognized the other two passages. Why – what makes Lincoln’s speech so memorable?
Anyone reading through the 55 presidential inaugural addresses to date (and I’ve read them all!) will find that they follow a common pattern: an opening paean to the democratic ritual of a transition in power, often cloaked in an appeal to unity and to transcending partisanship power (“We are all Democrats. We are all Federalists”). Sometimes this includes a statement of the theme to come – an introduction to the rest of the speech. This is then followed by a listing of the problems facing the country, and the world, and the difficulties in solving those problems. Part three then typically reaffirms American’s commitment and ability to solving those problems, if partisanship is put aside (“If we succeed it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but rather because of what we believe” – LBJ 1965.) Often there is reference to American institutions. Finally, the president concludes with an appeal to a higher power – the Almighty, or God.
Since presidents rarely stray from this formula, what makes some addresses more noteworthy than others? History suggests that stirring words alone are not enough to make an inaugural address memorable. With the advent of nationally broadcast addresses, and the use of speechwriters, rhetorical flourishes are now the norm. But some of the most powerful speeches are remembered for very simple declarative statements. Consider FDR’s: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” Or Reagan in 1981: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The power of these statements lies less in their literary construct than in their ability to isolate the transcendent issue of the day.
A memorable address, then, depends on the speaker’s ability to capture the essence of the moment in a way that resonates with most Americans. There are two parts to this equation. First, extraordinary speeches require extraordinary times. Consider the most frequently cited inaugural addresses: all occurred at a time of great national peril, beginning with Jefferson’s 1801 address, the first to take place after a change of political power in our nation. Lincoln’s second inaugural occurred in the middle of civil war. Roosevelt’s took place at a time of unprecedented economic depression; Kennedy’s clarion call to “bear any burden, pay any price” rang out during the heart of the Cold War, and Reagan’s when the nation was ready to reject the legacy of the New Deal and embrace a new governing philosophy.
So the times bring forth great speeches. But a second required ingredient is the ability of the president (beginning with the speechwriters who, since at least FDR’s presidency, write the initial drafts) to capture the essence of the problem facing the nation, and to link that to a solution that embodies transcendent American values.
Are those ingredients in place today? Certainly, we live in perilous times and all eyes are focused on the incoming administration to a degree not seen since Reagan took office in 1981. Expectations, then, are high. But can Obama deliver? Can he capture the essence of the problem – and a distinctly American solution – in a lasting phrase or declaration?
We’ll know in a few minutes.
Send me your reactions after the speech.