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In Address, a Second Chance to Transcend the Sound Bites

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E17

When people think of inaugural addresses, if they do, they remember a few highlights:

"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 . . . "

More typical, however, is a pile of bygone verbiage, a heap of sprung metaphors and given-out cliches. The soaring moments of inaugural history are scattered like jewels in a junkyard.

Bill Clinton now joins a fairly short list of presidents who have gotten a second chance to craft that rare achievement, a great inaugural address. His first, delivered on a splendid clear day four years ago, was not particularly memorable. He prepared for that speech by reading some classics: Lincoln's second, FDR's first, John F. Kennedy's. His own effort was neither good nor bad. Surprisingly brief, predictable in form and imagery, it was the oratorical equivalent of a solid ground ball up the middle—a safe turn at bat, but no home run.

This time, aides say, Clinton has George Washington's famous Farewell Address as his model — especially Washington's advice to the young nation to avoid breaking up into political parties:

"It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion," wrote Washington, with help from Alexander Hamilton, in an address that was published without ever having actually been spoken.

Being able to see 200 years into the future is the kind of thing that gets a guy on Mount Rushmore, and it is probably not fair to expect Washingtonian foresight from Clinton or anyone else.

But a great inaugural address — is that too much to ask?

Judging from the truncated strings of sound bites that passed for speeches at this year's political conventions, and the laundry lists of programs that have dominated Clinton's State of the Union messages, great oratory is hard to come by these days.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, has noticed the rather sorry state of speeches and offers several reasons for the blight: "One thing is so many more speeches are actually given," she said. "I wonder how many Lincoln gave we've never heard of. Another 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. 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," he wrote.

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 said. "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. FDR issued a macho challenge to Congress to adopt his plan, proffer its own 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 poetry and strong jawline put muscle on 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 to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

And there was Ronald Reagan, who set out to change the way people thought about government.

"In this present crisis," he said, "government is not the solution to the problem. . .. It's 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."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on presidential speechmaking, said, "The ones that we remember are the speeches that forecast the presidency. 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, and delivered a wimpish speech pretending that the issue of slavery was trivial and done. In tortured language reflecting vapid illogic, he foreshadowed his tragically weak presidency.

Likewise Ulysses S. Grant. As the first president elected after the wrenching, ghastly 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 help us define the institutional boundaries," Jamieson explained. "They 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."

James A. Garfield in 1881 and Grover Cleveland in 1885 used their inaugural addresses to lay out the competing philosophies that came to define the modern federal government. Garfield gave the first "big government" inaugural address, sketching a federal role in ending illiteracy, securing voting rights, educating farmers, building a Panama canal and so forth.

Cleveland came back four years later with a Reaganesque, small-government response.

"Our system of revenue shall be so adjusted as to relieve the people of unnecessary taxation," Cleveland boomed. And in case anyone missed the point, he lashed out at government "paternalism" in his second inaugural address: "While the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people."

People of good will 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."

"A speech that is memorable, moving, uplifting a speech that takes you from where you are and moves you to a higher plane for a little while these are the kind that are thought of as great," Cuomo said. "In this inaugural address, I hope President Clinton will try to be transcendent. Don't tell us about the $10,000 tuition deduction. Tell us how we can be better as people, as a community.

"It's not too late for President Clinton. He has four years to fill that gap. Give us something that thrills our souls."

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, sentences contorted like fat men in a yoga class, 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 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, Franklin 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, FDR hand-copied a draft by speechwriter Raymond Moley, apparently so it would look like his own work.

With FDR, inaugural speeches begin 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 good will." 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 catalog 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 Bush 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."

And: "Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze."

Lincoln joined style and substance so brilliantly that his speeches are treasured as literary, not just historical, landmarks. In his award-winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg," author 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 — a masterpiece etched in marble 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's more of the stuff that gets a guy on Mount Rushmore. For Clinton it will be enough, judging from the record, to have something important to say, to say it clearly and powerfully and with a touch of soul.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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