Second speech often lackluster


Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 11:31 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Second acts in inaugural speeches haven't been much to write home about.
George Washington opened his second term with remarks notable only for their brevity, a record-setting 135 words. Master wordsmith Thomas Jefferson complained that the Indians being assisted and subjugated by the government weren't getting with the program.
Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, unique in delivering four inaugurals, did not rise to the power of the first.
Few have matched Abraham Lincoln's double dose of lightning - his memorable invocation of ''the better angels of our nature'' on the eve of the Civil War followed by his ''malice toward none'' balm near war's end four years later.
When Bush delivers his second inauguration address on Jan. 20, he may be as hard pressed as most of the rest to say something truly for the ages. Not many have, even the first time around.
Among the 43 presidents, Lincoln, FDR 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.
All presidents want to add a line or phrase to the canon that will be quoted for decades, he said, but ''attempting to craft one for that purpose, or even to identify in advance which phrase is the most memorable, is rarely successful.''
Yet Kennedy himself labored long and hard over the ''Ask not'' line that became ''braided into the American soul,'' seeing its potential for greatness, Thurston Clarke writes in his book about JFK's blockbuster inauguration speech.
Inspired by variations of the sentence from his own campaign speeches, from other leaders and from philosophers back to the Bible, Kennedy and Sorenson polished and polished until the president-elect settled on: ''Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.''
Inaugural speeches follow a pattern of sorts, with common elements that date back to the first one.
Among them:
  • Humility: Jefferson, for one, 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.
  • 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 historic boldness in his first inaugural: ''Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.''
  • Rhetorical devices: Speakers employ what they hope is artful repetition. FDR in his second inaugural repeated the phrase ''I see,'' as in, ''I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.''
    Richard Nixon, in his second inaugural, chose ''Let us,'' as in, ''Let us build a structure of peace.''
    Teddy Roosevelt used alliteration, declaring ''we shall not prove false to the memories of the men of the mighty past.''
    Many paint pictures in words. Reagan painted sounds.
    He talked of a general falling to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; Reagan wanted people to imagine the crunch.
    Reagan asked Americans to imagine the patter of Lincoln's pacing of dark hallways, of men at the Alamo calling out encouragement to each other, of a settler pushing west and singing a song. ''It is the American sound,'' Reagan said, ''this most tender music.''
  • The past: Reverence for the Founding Fathers is a prerequisite dating almost to their time. Because all was fresh and new, George Washington had no forefathers to celebrate. Instead, he spoke of the American ''experiment'' and ''the sacred fire of liberty.''
  • Hail fellows: From Washington to George W. Bush, presidents have used one phrase more than any other to address the public directly in an inaugural speech: ''Fellow citizens.'' FDR departed from the norm in his first inaugural, speaking to ''My fellow Americans.''
    Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton used both. Kennedy added, ''my fellow citizens of the world.''
    Lyndon Johnson talked about ''fellow passengers on a dot of earth.''
    Lincoln was among several addressing ''my fellow countrymen.''
    -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 book, ''Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America,'' 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.''
    JFK's former prep school headmaster had exhorted his charges to consider ''not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate,'' Clarke writes, tracing just one source of inspiration.
    (In a clunkier version of the line, Kennedy had said in a campaign speech: ''It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing.'') Lincoln's first inaugural speech was lawyerly, getting right to Southern grievances and how they might be addressed peacefully. Only at the end did he soar, speaking directly to the secessionists.
    ''We are not enemies, but friends,'' he said. ''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.''
  • Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

    Comments are currently unavailable on this article

    ▲ Return to Top