Tuesday, January 20, 2009

WSJ - When Inaugural Speeches Work

Welcome to a very early edition of today's Rollins Financial Blog. Since most of America will be watching the Inauguration of our 44th President, I wanted everyone to have the ability to read this post prior to the day's festivities.

As someone that has always enjoyed history, I have watched most of the Inaugurations that have been televised (seeing most of them repeated again on C-Span every four years). From the first televised, Harry Truman in 1949, to now, they have all been quite interesting. The backbone of the Inauguration though has always been the Address. Future Presidents and speech writers spend days and weeks huddled coming up with "the line" that they hope will be the cornerstone of a memorable Presidency.

On this note, in Monday's Wall Street Journal there was a very good article discussing the Addresses that I thought I would share.

When Inaugural Speeches Work
By David Greenberg
January 19, 2009

Knowing the expectations that hang over an inaugural address, presidents-elect agonize in trying to craft a document for the ages. James A. Garfield, for one, vowed to read each of the 19 speeches that preceded his own, ultimately delegating the task to an assistant. Little matter: efforts to write an immortal piece of rhetoric -- whether by Democrats or Republicans, with speechwriters or alone -- almost always fail. A few contribute memorable lines, like Ronald Reagan's pithy summation of his philosophy from 1981: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." But in general, for all the anticipation they provoke, the substance of most kick-off speeches is soon forgotten.

Over the decades, indeed, only a few have gained canonical status—for the sublimity of their prose, the eloquence of their delivery or the aptness of their message for a concurrent crisis. Widely credited with writing stirring prose and with speaking mellifluously, Barack Obama will get rave reviews even if he reads straight from the Federal Register. But, taking office at a time of no little urgency, he still might seek to live up to his reputation by consulting five classics.

5. JFK, 1961
Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen has a stock reply when questioned about the authorship of the 1961 inaugural. "Ask not," he tweaks his interrogator. The celebrated inversion of words, or chiasmus, to which Sorensen's quip alludes—"ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"—stands as the most remembered snippet from what's commonly thought of as a summons to sacrifice. But JFK was always more realist than idealist, and self-abnegation wasn't really a key theme of his presidential debut. The speech's enduring value stems, rather, from two qualities: Its status as the last expression of a now-eclipsed strain of Churchillian oratory and its brilliant articulation of a liberal internationalism in what Kennedy called, with some exaggeration, an "hour of maximum danger" in geopolitics.

While short-changing domestic crises—only at the urging of his civil rights advisers did JFK shoehorn in the words "at home" in avowing his commitment to human rights—Kennedy fashioned a quintessentially Cold War document. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that 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," he pledged. But he balanced that tough talk with conciliation: professions of peaceful intentions, praise for the United Nations, warnings about the nuclear arms race, pledges to alleviate world poverty, and overtures to Khrushchev's Soviet Union. The choicest line, penned by John Kenneth Galbraith, may have been another chiasmus: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Negotiate Kennedy did, not just in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis but in signing the nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963 and thus hastening the first thaw in the Cold War.

4. Jefferson, 1801
After serving as John Adams's vice president, back when presidential runners-up assumed the No. 2 spot in the executive, Jefferson challenged Adams again in 1800. The election was ugly. Adams and Jefferson now led clearly distinct parties, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, who attacked each other fiercely. Worse, the outcome remained unresolved into February 1801, since Aaron Burr, Jefferson's intended running-mate, drew as many electoral votes as the presidential candidate and, according to the rules at the time, the House of Representatives had to pick the winner.

Jefferson's ultimate selection marked the first transition from one party to another, and Jefferson used his speech to acknowledge the importance of the peaceful transfer of power—a theme presidents still sound. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," he said in the speech's most memorable sentence. He went on to praise the American experiment in democracy, still relatively untested. "Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government."

3. FDR, 1937
FDR's first term had transformed government's role in people's lives; it also turned the economy around—though not enough to end the Depression. Now he faced the challenge of sustaining popular morale. In the first inaugural given in January (following the ratification of the 20th Amendment), he looked back on his first-term achievements and pledged not to rest on the road to recovery. If his first term hadn't buried talk of the infallibility of unfettered capitalism, he sought now to nail the coffin shut. "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we now know that it is bad economics." He made the plight of the worst-off his chief concern, insisting that "hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hard-heartedness." (To ensure that he didn't transpose the words and muff the line, FDR drew a circle above "headedness" and a heart above "heartedness.")

The capstone was Roosevelt's moving portrait of the worst off, rendered with the classical device of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase to start successive clauses. "I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them," FDR said. "…I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." The passage, and the speech, was a small foray into political philosophy, presenting a moral rationale for government's enlarged involvement in economic life.

2. Lincoln, 1865
Regarded by most historians as the greatest inaugural, Lincoln's lightning-brief sermon on the need for "malice toward none … charity for all" at the Civil War's end was not without flaws—notably an overreliance on the trope of God's inscrutability. ("The Almighty has his own purposes.") A gem nonetheless, delivered as the Union forces marched toward victory, the speech endures for spurning triumphalism in favor of humility at a time when the North's chief war aim—national unity—remained elusive. Admirably, Lincoln declined to outfit the divinity of which he spoke on the side of the Union forces. Both sides, he observed wryly, "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other."

For all the attention that historians have devoted to the war's causes, Lincoln had it right: slavery and its expansion "somehow" lay at the source. But, again, instead of reproving the nearly vanquished South for choosing to "make war rather than let the nation survive," Lincoln suggested that divine justice had given "to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came"—retribution on all Americans, all of whom were implicated in the grand sin of human chattelhood. Only with such a realization could the nation move forward.

A spare speech of 700 words, some 500 of them monosyllabic, the address ended with an earnest plea "to bind up the nation's wounds." Some Americans heeded the prayer; some didn't. In the audience that day were not only thousands of freed slaves but also John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Lincoln 41 days later.

1. FDR, 1933
With the nation engulfed in depression and panicked by a banking crisis, Roosevelt gave his first inaugural under pressure to be as aggressive in meeting these emergencies as Herbert Hoover, his routed predecessor, had been feckless. Seventeen minutes long, the speech squarely faced the moment's exigencies. In his opening, FDR spoke the line that everyone today knows: his assertion of his "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Much like Kennedy's "ask not" dictum a generation later, the aphorism was not original; Roosevelt's was inserted by his aide Louis Howe, who is believed to have seen it in a department-store advertisement.

To justify the call for optimism, Roosevelt disingenuously scapegoated "unscrupulous money changers" for what was clearly a much more systemic failure. But he went on, inspirationally, to demand "action and action now"—the organizing message of the speech. To much applause, he appealed for "broad executive power"—not the dictatorial control that some people had expected, but a temporary measure of authority much as a wartime leader might assume—along with public sacrifice and pulling together for a "disciplined attack upon our common problems." When the address ended, reporters noted tears streaming down listeners' faces, and editorialists cheered. "Well," said Raymond Moley, a close FDR aide, "he's taken the ship of state and he's turned it right around."

These speeches are among the few we study today as masterpieces. It seems likely that Obama will draw upon more than a few of them, in spirit if not in words. The call for unity in Jefferson and Lincoln, the advocacy of urgent action promised by Roosevelt, Kennedy's gesture at sacrifice and hand extended in friendship overseas—we can expect to hear most or all of these notes.

But cribbing, or even learning, from great speeches will not make Obama's speech great. For all their poetry and music, these few classics endure mainly for another reason: because of the greatness of the presidents who delivered them. Had Roosevelt not led America out of the Depression, had Kennedy not lessened the Cold War danger, had Jefferson not shored up America's national identity, had Lincoln not forged a nation more true to its principles, then it is likely we wouldn't recall their words so fondly today. And so, writing a crackerjack inaugural address will be only the first, and easily the smallest, of Obama's forthcoming challenges.

Want to know more about the Inauguration?

In reviewing the Inauguration, it is important to understand how they have changed over the years. If you are at all interested, I would suggest going to the website Inauguration of the President made by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. It details everything you would ever want to know about the Inaugurations and ascensions to the presidency of the great men who have led our country.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Joint Congressional Committee
on Inaugural Ceremonies

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