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Obama’s speech: Inaugural past there to surpass



Published: Tue, January 20, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

The 44th president may find it easy to outshine many of his predecessors.

Christian science monitor

WASHINGTON — U.S. 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 Barack Obama, the good news here is that today 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,” wrote 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,” said Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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 ...”).

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.”

The best inaugural addresses 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 U.S. literature.

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.

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,” said Shuster.


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