The last Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009, dawned bright and cold. More than a million people, possibly the largest live audience ever to see a president inaugurated, and certainly the biggest since Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration in 1965, streamed to the Washington Mall for Barack Obama’s oath-taking as the 44th president of the United States. Even the most jaded old Washington hands could feel a different vibe in the crowd—people seemed excited, happy, some teary-eyed to witness, for the first time in history, an African-American sworn in as chief executive.
Obama’s inaugural address was widely seen as a bit of a letdown. “A hodgepodge,” wrote John Judis in The New Republic. There were no particularly memorable phrases or flights of rhetoric. At one point, Obama seemed to play the scold, quoting Scripture that “the time has come to put aside childish things.” Some observers speculated that Obama had intentionally wished to lower expectations raised by his dreams of “hope and change” during the campaign.
Not exactly, says Adam Frankel, a former Obama White House speechwriter who worked on the address. “It’s not like we considered writing a soaring speech and decided not to. But there was also a recognition, a new sense of responsibility to talk to people ‘where they are,’ as [Obama adviser] David Axelrod put it— to give them a sense of hope without being Pollyanna-ish,” Frankel told me.
Frankel recalled that before the president’s first inauguration, during a meeting at the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters, the president-elect had told his staff he wanted an address that would place the moment in history. Frankel found one model, as recounted by historian David McCullough, in the words Gen. George Washington, after crossing the Delaware in December 1776, had used to inspire and rally his frozen and demoralized troops. And Obama tried to invoke that spirit, urging Americans to rise above “petty grievances and false promises,” and culminating with a rousing finale nodding to Thomas Paine: “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”
Four years ago, standing in the chilly air, the vast outdoor audience assembled before the west front of the Capitol may have been momentarily moved. Yet in his first term, the president himself did not, perhaps could not, live up to his own words. Those who know him say he was burdened—and hardened—by the constant political infighting in Washington.
Now Obama has a second chance at an inaugural. The task is perhaps more daunting, to find a way to inspire and uplift, but also to speak to people “where they are”—distrustful of government, worried about their future, unsure their president will have any more luck fixing Washington’s dysfunctional culture in his second term than he did in his first. Obama risks sounding like a phony if he tries too hard for words meant to be cut in marble. On the other hand, he can’t show how tired and frustrated he must really feel.
A president who is writing (or, more likely, editing and refining) his inaugural address is confronted with a very difficult challenge: how to speak in his own true voice while at the same time speaking for every man and woman. The challenge to be at once unique and universal has defeated virtually all of Obama’s predecessors. With a few memorable exceptions—like JFK’s, Lincoln’s second, FDR’s first (“the only thing to fear is fear itself”)—inaugural addresses have long disappointed their expectant listeners. The words rarely live up to the occasion. Most inaugural addresses “tend not to be very good,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “The best rhetoric has been used up in the campaign, and presidents don’t want to promise too much. They are planning to give their first State of the Union addresses in a few weeks and they don’t want to preempt. Plus, most presidents are not good speakers or writers.”
Generally, they get help—maybe, too much help. Inaugural addresses often read like awkward or banal contrivances because they are so often inauthentic. For the first inaugural, Washington, a man of few words, reached out to James Madison, a man of perhaps too many words, to draft the speech. The result was a prolix jumble that is almost painfully self-effacing. In a crush of fractured syntax, Washington spoke of “the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.” Whew.
For his inaugural two centuries later, Lyndon Johnson turned to the novelist John Steinbeck, who had been an acquaintance of his wife, Lady Bird. LBJ wanted poetry, but he got the leavings of a burned-out literary genius. “LBJ had cried at the movie of Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath,” explains Beschloss. “In the inaugural address Johnson used Steinbeck phrases like ‘I do not believe the Great Society is the ordered, changeless, and sterile battalion of ants.’ It sounded nothing like LBJ.”
Bill Clinton “was always reaching out,” recalls his chief speechwriter, Michael Waldman. For his first inaugural, Clinton called on old JFK and LBJ hands Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Richard Goodwin, as well as Martin Luther King’s biographer, Taylor Branch, to offer some language. The drafting of the speech was chaotic; Clinton pulled an all-nighter and was making changes at the last second. "The speech was underrated," said Waldman, though he conceded that Clinton's second inaugural was "written by a committee. It tried too hard for grandeur, to be poetic. Second inaugurals are usually pretty bad," he acknowledged."
Richard Nixon actually wrote many of his own speeches, often laboring over them for days. Ever the grind, Nixon read every one of his predecessors’ inaugural addresses, concluding that “only the short ones are remembered,” according to a memoir by his speechwriter Ray Price. Scarcely able to conceal his envy of Kennedy, Nixon tried to echo the ringing phrases of JFK’s inaugural address (“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 ...”) Unfortunately, out of Nixon’s mouth, the phrasing fell flat: “Let all nations know that during this administration our lines of communication will be open.”
Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961 remains the modern gold standard for inspiring speeches—and the inspiration for thousands of poor imitations. The words still ring: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Though the speech was largely crafted by Kennedy’s superb speechwriter Sorensen, Kennedy contributed some of the words: he was channeling his old prep-school headmaster, Seymour St. John of Choate. (“Ask not what Choate can do for you—ask what you can do for Choate.”) On the eve of the inaugural, Kennedy was feeling insecure about the speech. He fretted that it would not live up to the greats. “It won’t be as good as Jefferson’s,” Kennedy sighed to a friend on the eve of his inauguration.
It’s hard to imagine that JFK closely read Jefferson’s speeches. Jefferson’s first inaugural is famous for its call to rise above partisanship—“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” said Jefferson—but both his first and second inaugural addresses are windy and wandering, dense and ornate, and virtually unreadable today.
The one inaugural address that seems timeless is Lincoln’s second. It succeeds, above all, because it is honest. It truly reflects Lincoln’s own struggles with God’s purpose. After his death in April 1865, just a month after his second inaugural, a piece of paper was found in Lincoln’s desk drawer. “The paper said that God exists,” recalls Beschloss, “But it notes that if God were on the side of the Union, the war would have been over sooner.” Lincoln’s speech captured his existential grappling: “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each evokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”—Lincoln’s description of slavery—“but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
If God so willed, Lincoln vowed to continue the war “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” But he ended tenderly, fervently: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds ...”
Lincoln’s overall tone is humble—that of a man who has learned from harsh experience. It may be revealing that presidential farewell addresses sometimes seem more convincing than inaugurals. Humility is a lesson that presidents often are forced to learn on the job. Washington was hardly lacking in ego. He was called “His Excellency” during the Revolution, and “he rather liked the title His High Mightiness,” writes historian Robert Remini in his collection of inaugural addresses, Fellow Citizens. But in his farewell address, Washington warned that America should be humble in its global ambitions—to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” By far Dwight Eisenhower’s most memorable speech came at the end of his presidency—warning against “the military-industrial complex” that had grown up over the course of Eisenhower’s Cold War presidency.
By contrast, inaugurals, hoping to inspire, have sometimes tended to overreach. JFK’s glorious inaugural speech was, in hindsight, a prescription for disaster. By promising that America “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” he overcommitted American power and prestige. (Less than three months later, as a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba was failing at the Bay of Pigs, JFK woke up weeping, according to his wife, Jacqueline.) In a similar vein, George W. Bush’s second inaugural is a beautiful paean to liberty: he presented “the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.” But by stating that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” Bush glossed over the costs and burdens of such an expansive global role.
Obama can be stubborn and willful, but he will need to compromise and perhaps lower expectations to accomplish much in his second term. Perhaps he could learn from Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush had been full of bombast—“Read my lips: No new taxes!”—when he accepted the GOP nomination in New Orleans in August 1988. But by his inauguration in January 1989 he was already looking for a way to climb off his high horse. He offered his hand to the Democratic leaders in Congress, and even had written into the transcript of his speech a spontaneous shout-out to the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski (“Hey, Danny!”).
Admittedly, this sort of hail-fellow bonhomie is not really Obama’s style. The 44th president does not like to glad-hand. But he can be playful and even fun if the mood moves him, and he can be convincing and profound when he speaks on a subject close to his heart. Obama’s take it-or-leave-it arrogance in the “fiscal cliff” talks before New Year’s masks his more subtle intelligence. Obama may not be the second coming of Lincoln (first-term hype notwithstanding), and our times are hardly as desperate as the Civil War. But it’s a good bet that Obama is more ambivalent than he lets on about the proper road to fostering prosperity while at the same time cutting red ink, a challenge that divides the best economists. If his second inaugural address succeeds, it will be because the president has delivered a speech that is not chilly or self-righteous, but at once warm and understanding as well as honest and true. You have to go back to Eisenhower and maybe all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt to find a president who had a successful second term. Most Americans want Obama to succeed. They will be watching and listening for him to strike the right first note.
The text of this article has been modified to correct an error about President Clinton's inaugural speechwriting.