As Obama prepares inaugural address, he might consult past ones

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address as the nation's first African-American president, he'll be building on 220 years of tradition in which his predecessors also made speechmaking firsts.

The Constitution doesn't require inaugural speeches. The first president, George Washington, started the tradition in 1789, along with kissing the Bible and saying "so help me God" with the oath of office.

James Monroe, in 1817, gave the first outdoor inaugural address. Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953, prefaced his speech with a prayer. Ronald Reagan, in 1981, was the first to stage the inaugural at the west front of the Capitol. Bill Clinton's second inauguration, in 1997, was the first to be broadcast on the Internet.

John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president, but he didn't focus on that in his 1961 inaugural address. Similarly, while Obama's breaking of the racial barrier has intensified interest in his inauguration, some historians predict that he won't dwell on his biracial background in his speech.

"The fact that he's there and everyone else is addressing it alleviates him of the need," said Richard Norton Smith, a George Mason University scholar who's written books about presidents and directed several presidential libraries and museums.

"My sense is he doesn't want to be thought of as the first black president. He certainly doesn't want to be defined by it," Smith said. "Fifty years later, we don't think of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president. We don't think of FDR as the first disabled president."

A best-selling author with a gift for oratory, Obama faces high expectations for his speech. His advisers and speechwriters declined to share details about their writing process, but it's a common custom to review previous inaugural addresses when shaping a new one.

Among the most lauded inaugural addresses, and those Obama may be re-reading:

  • Thomas Jefferson, trying to conciliate inflamed political passions, said in 1801 that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. . . . We are all republicans, we are all federalists."
  • Abraham Lincoln told a nation descending into war in 1861 that "we must not be enemies" and called on "the better angels of our nature." A victorious Lincoln in 1865 pledged "malice toward none, with charity for all" and vowed "to bind up the nation's wounds."
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, amid the Great Depression, promised candor about the nation's troubles while asserting that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
  • Kennedy said that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." He challenged citizens to serve their nation. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

    Kennedy also warned Cold War enemies that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden" to defend liberty, a stand that some critics took as bellicose swaggering that helped lead America into the Vietnam War. JFK also emphasized diplomacy, however, saying that Americans must "never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

  • Gerald Ford, the vice president who was sworn in as president in August 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal. Ford asked that his swearing-in speech be thought of as "not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech" but rather "just a little straight talk among friends." In that speech he famously declared that "our long national nightmare is over."
  • Reagan took over in 1981 amid an economic crisis and as the Iranian hostage crisis ended. He conveyed optimism, dismissing the idea of "inevitable decline" and urging, "Let us begin an era of national renewal."

    He also signaled a philosophical shift, saying that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And he warned foreign adversaries, "Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will."

Allan J. Lichtman, an American University historian, said that Obama could draw profitably from each of those presidents. He regards Lincoln's second inaugural address as the greatest, and said that "what Obama could take out of Lincoln's second inaugural is its moral and spiritual message. There are certainly moral and spiritual messages to be delivered now with wars still raging abroad, the American economy in a mess."

Among the lowest-regarded inaugural speeches:

  • William Henry Harrison's, in 1841. At 8,445 words, it was the longest in history and took less than two hours to deliver on a cold, wet day. He died a month later from pneumonia.
  • James Buchanan, in 1857, tried to downplay the political fight over slavery that soon would tear the country in two. Instead of offering leadership on the most urgent problem of the day, Buchanan spoke optimistically of a time "when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance."

Most inaugural addresses have left slight marks on history.

Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian, said times of crisis tended to foster more memorable addresses.

"When there's a lot of trouble going on, they want something that's uplifting and gives people a lot of hope and inspires them to get involved," Ritchie said.

While State of the Union addresses set out a president's specific goals for a given year, inaugural speeches aim more at themes that make emotional connections, so as "to reunite the country after the divisive election," Ritchie said.

Politicians including Obama sometimes quote past inaugural addresses while on the campaign trail, but new presidents typically don't quote their predecessors' inaugural speeches in their own.

"They use them as a standard, however, as a model," Ritchie said. "A lot of them are role models for what not to do as much as to do."

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