My favorite leadership moments are those inaugurations which served to heal the nation. Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801 marked the first real change of power in Washington. Jefferson became president after a bitter election, and during his inaugural address — in an attempt to bring the nation together — he declared, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” Then in March of 1865, in his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” a phase that he used to indicate that the Civil War was ending and we were going to come back together. Finally, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president during the Great Depression. He showed leadership when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
What common leadership themes have emerged in inaugural addresses?
In an inaugural address, you are going to have generalities about religion and faith, doing good deeds and working together. In actuality, most are not memorable. Exactly 100 years ago, the magazine called The Economist wrote that “the presidents of the United States have gotten into the habit of emptying a load of words into the streets and calling them inaugural addresses. These monstrosities were probably the work of secretaries, assistant secretaries and short hand writers.” And that was their amusing way of saying that the inaugural addresses normally aren’t that much.
What is it that made John F. Kennedy's inaugural address stand out?
It was his delivery, his phraseology — and he addressed all the right people. Kennedy addressed the nation, saying we’ve got to work together when he said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He addressed our allies and our adversaries. He was poignant and strong and his timing was impeccable.
What is the interaction between the outgoing and incoming presidents on inauguration day?
Normally it’s extremely cordial. There’s the tradition of getting together at the White House for coffee, and then there’s the procession from the White House to the Capitol. There are only a handful of interactions where there was a problem. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a conflict, because at the time Adams considered Jefferson to be a radical. President John Quincy Adams viewed Andrew Jackson and his followers as a bunch of low-lifes, so he didn’t attend the 1829 inauguration. In 1933, we had the situation with Franklin Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover, and it’s clear from all the pictures of the procession that there was an issue. In some of them, Roosevelt is turning towards Hoover to try to have an animated conversation, other times he is smiling or waving to the crowd, but in every picture, Hoover’s just staring straight ahead ignoring Roosevelt. There was no conversation, and nothing coming from Hoover at all.