Mr. President, it would be wonderful if you deliver a great inaugural address. But if you don’t, take comfort: very few of your predecessors did. In fact, as the history books often point out, the inaugural address that had the most immediate effect was certainly one of the worst: 68 year-old William Henry Harrison spoke for nearly two hours (at 8,445 words, also the longest-ever address) on a snowy day in March 1841. He caught cold and died of pneumonia a month later.
William Safire, a former speechwriter for President Nixon and author of Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, writes that there have been four great inaugural addresses: Lincoln’s two, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first, and John F. Kennedy’s. Others make claims for Jefferson’s first and Wilson’s second.
Lincoln, elected on the eve of the Civil War, wanted to make clear that he was not going to let the South walk away from the Union. He was prepared to fight. Lincoln’s second, delivered four years later and thirty-seven days away from the end of the Civil War, was a sermon looking to reconciliation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech of March 4, 1933, also came in the midst of exceptional crisis. One out of every four workers was out of a job, and many banks in all forty-eight states were either closed or placed restrictions on how much money depositors could withdraw. Roosevelt’s “bold tone and buoyant delivery,” Safire writes, “encouraged people parched for hope.”
What is so remarkable about Kennedy’s speech is that 1961 was no more a moment of crisis than were any of the other inaugural years of the cold war from Truman through Reagan. Rather, what was instantly hailed was the sheer brilliance of the words, the flow of passion celebrating youth and idealism.
Inaugural addresses are not expected to be heavy on specifics, to detail legislative or administrative proposals. That is what your State of the Union message is for. But you can make an exception to this rule, if you choose, as President Truman did in 1949 when he used his inaugural address to outline four points of action for “world recovery and lasting peace.” His fourth point—which called for “a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas”— quickly turned into a major U.S. foreign policy initiative.
Nor are inaugural addresses expected to sound like campaign speeches. Again, there are exceptions: Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address repackages the same themes—often using the same words— that he had been honing into a basic message since campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964.
As a member in good standing of the Judson Welliver Society, the collectivity of former presidential speechwriters, I offer here some advice to review with your own team of future Welliverians:
You will not set the record for the shortest inaugural address. George Washington will always hold that one—a mere 135 words. The gold standard is now Kennedy’s twelve minutes. If you can stay around twelve minutes, the commentator class will take note with appreciation.
Do not try to be a Kennedy clone. Clinton did—and while there were moments that were quite good in his first inaugural address, do you really want to be thought of as a weak carbon copy of someone else? Don’t worry about creating applause lines for the people facing you on the Mall. They are your devoted supporters; they already love you. Your primary audience is measured in millions, in the United States and abroad, curious for a first impression of the new president and willing to give you a few minutes in the midst of their busy lives. Humor rarely works. A catchphrase might work for Kennedy (“new frontier”), but how many remember which president created “new covenant” and “new spirit”?
George W. Bush’s first inaugural was a great speech—for some other president. Was a Texas “brush-whacker” supposed to sound that elegant? (Apparently he thought so.) Jimmy Carter—who is said to have written his own speech—did well by sounding like Jimmy Carter, even if there were some at the time who were disappointed. Be comfortable with your rhetorical self.
Refer back to worksheets in the first chapter in which you wrote down why you were elected and what you promised to accomplish as president. If you campaigned for “change” or “reform,” this is the moment to put those ideas in the context of how you plan to govern. Ask not what you can cram into twelve minutes, but rather what is the one thought—even the one word—that best describes what you want your presidency to stand for.