All US presidents eventually reveal their flaws, but the ones who are remembered in spite of their flaws are those who inspire Americans - and by extension all free people - to serve and make a difference.
Barack Obama, it has been said, won the presidency on just one speech - the one he delivered at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and now he will be expected to top that flash of inspiration with his inaugural address. It will be the 56th such speech in American history, and will be the first on YouTube.
The best leaders, as John Stuart Mill wrote are the ones who can articulate that, “the worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.” Or as Jill LePore writes in the latest issue of the New Yorker, “Presidential rhetoric is worth keeping an eye on. ...a rhetorical presidency begins to look a lot better after some years of a dumfounded one.”
What presidents say when they are sworn often sets the stage for what is to come. Inagural speechmaking serves four purposes, according to Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jameison, in their book, Presidents Creating the Presidency: reunite the country after a divisive election campaign, emphasize shared and inherited values, set forth policies, and inspire people to envision a better future.
Bill Clinton’s remarks 16 years ago were certainly prescient: “Our rich texture of racial, religious and political diversity will be a godsend in the 21st century,” he declared. “Great rewards will come to those who can live together, learn together, work together, and forge new bonds that bind us together.”
Obama fulfills that promise in ways Clinton could never have imagined. Unlike a Speech from the Throne in Canada, or a State of the Union Address in the United States, an inaugural speech is meant to have substance.
President Taft called it “a summary outline of the main policies of a new administration.” But it is more than that. A great speech can go a long way to mask a leader’s deficiencies. Phrases are coined that either inspire Americans to sharpen their skills as citizens or leave us unmoved, anxious or even dispirited.
Remember, It was eight years ago, on Jan. 20, 2001, even before the attack on the World Trade Towers, that George W. Bush signalled his intention to “confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors.” At the time Bush also pledged to “show purpose without arrogance,” a vow that today, seems laughable. At least no can say he didn't warn the world of what was coming.
And Ronald Reagan anticipated the present economic crisis in his inaugural in 1981, when he declared, “we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this trend is to guarantee tremendous social, political and economic upheaval.” But Reaganomics only added to the problem. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in the darkest day of The Depression, inspired confidence with the first paragraph of his frank and bold address: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy also tapped into public sentiment with his inspired call to “ ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. ....whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
Obama will be hard pressed to match that kind of confidence. But he's no slouch when it comes to making a good speech, and apparently is a student of inaugural speeches. Obama’s famous declaration “there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's only the United States of America,” could have been inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who said much the same thing at his inaugural: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have been called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated and where reason is left to combat it.”
That kind of speech making appears to have declined over the past century. Instead of speaking and taking the public into their confidence, presidents have been pandering to public opinion, and in place of evidence and argument offer platitudes, partisan gibes, and sloganeering. George H. W. Bush compared freedom to a kite, and talked gibberish about a thousand points of light. And what does one make of Jimmy Carter’s assertion: “It is that unique self-definition which has given us exceptional appeal, but it also imposes upon us a special obligation to take on those moral duties, which, when assumed, seem invariably to be in our own best interests.” Vacuous in comparison to the magisterial speeches of the 19th century. But then, speeches back then were meant to be read, not heard. John Adams managed to write a 700-word sentence near the end of his inaugural address. Try speaking that in one breath.
No inaugural speeches are better than Abraham Lincoln’s. At his first inaugural he stood firm in his constitutional position, and tried to prevent a civil war:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The words of Lincoln's’ second inaugural, after the war, are so eloquent they are carved in stone on his memorial: “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 do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Woodrow Wilson, the only president with a Phd., managed to bore the public with his academic inaugural address on March 4, 1913. He tossed around words such as “vouchsafed,” but he managed to get off a few good lines, such as, “Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity.” George Washington gave the shortest inaugural address when he was sworn in for his second term - less than 150 words. By contrast, William Henry Harrison spoke for nearly two hours during a snowstorm at his inauguration on March 4, 1841.
He warned against the corrupting influence of office, upheld the freedom of the press, and peppered his remarks with classical references to Octavius, Anthony, Brutus, the Curtii and Decii, and Camillus and the Scipios.
It was the longest inaugural address ever given. Many say it killed him.
Harrison died of pneumonia one month after delivering it.