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Words for the Ages

History Will Judge the Message and Its Messenger

Not All Oratory By Presidents Created Equal

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A36

The history of inaugural addresses is a vast desert with hundreds of dry, empty miles between oases. The ground is littered with the bleached bones of bygone verbiage, faint metaphors and collapsed cliches. Some of the desert is unapologetically flat. Often, a mirage appears, sound bites shimmering lushly just out of reach, but dissolving upon close inspection.

Great moments? You know them already.

_____Presidential Speeches_____
The Best and Worst
The Longest and Shortest

"With malice toward none, with charity for all . . ."

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . ."

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country . . ."

Nearly a generation has passed since the last oasis: Ronald Reagan's 1981 speech, in which the oldest man ever elected outlined his revolutionary view of government. "In this present crisis," he said, "government is not the solution to the problem. . . . It is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work -- work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back."

Four years ago, George W. Bush gave a middling speech. It was not as full of purple passages as his father's 1989 address. It was not as vaguely grandiose as Bill Clinton's 1997 speech, in which an almost unpronounceable call to be "repairers of the breach" ushered in four of the most bitterly divided years in modern times.

The best inaugural addresses sum up historical turning points or set the tone for an administration to come. This year, Bush is honing a speech of about 16 minutes on the theme of liberty at home and abroad, one official who has read a draft said. Certainly, Bush has material for a memorable speech. The nation is at war abroad and divided at home. He has global ambitions -- the spread of democracy -- and big plans in Congress, namely the restructuring of Social Security.

Whether he finds the words to match the moment -- stay tuned.

Why are so few inaugural addresses any good? Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, has suggested several reasons for the blight.

"One thing is so many more speeches are actually given," she said. "History chooses from countless hours of blah-blah-blah, discards most and preserves only the best," she said.

"Another reason is that television has replaced live audiences. The bits they take from speeches are getting smaller and smaller, so the people who write speeches write with that in mind," Tannen continued. "Great rhetorical flights have to be built up to, and today the audience isn't there long enough.

"The speeches now are written practically by committee," she added.

"And my last point would be that politicians are more defensive -- more concerned about not saying something that could be used against them."

Beyond that, a great speech depends on a great moment -- an "occasion," as former presidential speechwriter William Safire put it in the introduction to his anthology of great oratory. "There comes a dramatic moment in the life of a person or a party or a nation that cries out for the uplift and release of a speech. Someone is called upon to articulate the hope, pride, or grief of all."

Consider Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Jefferson's election was a bitter one: As Washington had feared, national unity had degenerated into trench warfare between the Federalists and the Republicans. Jefferson gave the first inaugural "healing speech."

"We are all Republicans," he declared. "We are all Federalists."

Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he was on the cusp of history when he took the oath at the depths of the Great Depression. "The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase for evanescent profits," Roosevelt intoned in his famous "only thing we have to fear" speech.

It was a relatively short oration but blisteringly strong. He issued a lead-follow-or-step-aside challenge to Congress. Lawmakers could adopt his bold New Deal, proffer their own plan -- or grant him "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

In 1961, John F. Kennedy proclaimed a generational change. His strong voice, strong jaw line and strong poetry combined to lend muscle to a rather vague speech. "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. . . . We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on presidential speechmaking, said: "A good inaugural articulates the president's philosophy of governance and the principles that will guide his decision making -- like Lincoln saying, 'With malice toward none, with charity for all.' "

But for every president who managed to seize the moment, there is another president who failed miserably. James Buchanan, for instance, who took the oath in 1857 as the nation whirled toward civil war, delivered a wimpish speech pretending that the issue of slavery was trivial and done with. In tortured language reflecting vapid illogic and empty hope, he foreshadowed his tragically weak presidency.

Likewise Ulysses S. Grant. As the first president elected after the wrenching Civil War, Grant had a chance to speak vividly of broad issues. Instead, in 1869, he delivered a brief, dull address, devoted mostly to paying the war debt with gold and silver from "the sterile mountains of the Far West." He sounded more like an accountant than a president.

"Good inaugurals," Jamieson said, "are a way of making sense of who we are as a people. The president is the only one who can speak for the body politic."

Sometimes, inaugural addresses sketch the tensions between competing philosophies. James A. Garfield in 1881 and Grover Cleveland in 1885 used their speeches to lay out the two basic views of the federal government that still shape much of our debate today. Garfield gave the first "big government" inaugural address, outlining a federal role in ending illiteracy, securing voting rights, educating farmers and so forth.

Cleveland came back four years later with a Reagan-esque, small-government response. "Our system of revenue shall be so adjusted as to relieve the people of unnecessary taxation," he boomed.

People of goodwill disagree on whether former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo would have made a good president. But who could doubt that he would have given a grand inaugural address? To him, speaking for the body politic means "something to lift us up and bind us together."

"Tell us how we can be better as people, as a community. . . .Give us something that thrills our souls," the Democrat said.

Part of the magic is substance. Part is style. Stylistically, inaugural addresses divide into three types: those written in the days before mass communication, aimed at a small and highly educated audience; those from the modern age, which must speak to everyone; and those written by Lincoln, who had the distinct advantage of being a literary genius.

Until Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, presidents did not employ full-time speechwriters, and it showed. With a few exceptions, their inaugural addresses lumbered along, stentorian language puffing up shopworn ideas.

"With regard to a proper selection of the subjects of impost with a view to revenue . . ." was Andrew Jackson's way of saying, in 1829, that he was going to talk about taxes.

Typically, these early speeches followed a course set by George Washington: Start with an expression of humility. Move to an analysis of the president's rightful constitutional role. Discuss a few goals. End with a prayer for God's blessing.

By contrast, Roosevelt's inaugural speeches show the advantages of full-scale ghostwriting -- although he encouraged the myth that he wrote his famous first inaugural address in one vigorous night of work at Hyde Park. According to biographer Kenneth Davis, Roosevelt hand-copied a draft by speechwriter Raymond Moley, apparently so it would look like his own work.

With FDR, inaugural speeches began to sing. Sentences and paragraphs alternate pleasingly between short jabs and lyrical flights. There is a sudden profusion of quick, clever wordplay.

"Hardheadedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness," Roosevelt said in 1937. "We realize that there can be no era of good feeling save among men of goodwill." Repetition becomes a crucial tool. From that 1937 speech: "I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent. . . . I see millions denied education. . . . I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory. . . . I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

And anecdotes creep in. "I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: Things in life will not always run smoothly," FDR reminisced in 1945.

But more zip, zing and zest have not necessarily meant more variety. Modern inaugural addresses typically begin with musings on the long survival of the republic. The Founding Fathers are invoked. The preferred closing is still a call for God's blessing.

In between, there usually comes a catalogue of problems followed by a bold assurance that America can meet every challenge. A little saber rattling is balanced by a pledge of peaceful intentions.

"It's a cliche-ridden form," Jamieson said. "But think about it from the perspective of the person delivering the speech: You're dealing with the abstractions of democracy. How can you deal with them freshly when you have 50-some others before you, and all had basically the same task?"

The modern speeches have been, on the whole, much prettier, but sometimes the spangles are sprinkled on an empty package. Lacking a big moment in history -- he was a vice president following a popular two-term president -- George W. Bush's father dished up spun sugar in his 1989 inaugural address. For example: "There are times when the future seems thick as a fog; you sit and wait, hoping the mists will lift and reveal the right path. But this is a time when the future seems a door you can walk right through to a room called tomorrow."

Lincoln joined style and substance so brilliantly that his speeches are treasured as literary, not just historical, landmarks. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg," Garry Wills traced the intense study and wide knowledge Lincoln poured into his speeches -- of subjects as diverse as classical rhetoric, principles of Euclidean mathematics, Shakespeare and the history of language.

The great Second Inaugural Address -- etched in stone at the Lincoln Memorial -- soared beyond the political into the spiritual ether:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until the wealth piled up by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, still must it be said the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

That is more of the stuff that gets a guy on Mount Rushmore. For Bush it will be enough to have something important to say, to say it clearly and powerfully.

This article is an update of material from previous inauguration sections.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company