EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


January 18, 2009

Inaugural addresses have history of eloquence, embarassment

Even those who didn't vote for him have to admit that President-elect Barack Obama gives quite a speech.

Some might argue that after an 18-month run for the presidency, plus more than two months spent in an unusually high profile preparatory effort, the novelty of an Obama Inaugural Address is likely to be more symbolic than substantive.

Historically, the first presidential speech of a new term traditionally is a moment of some suspense and promise, when the leader humbly accepts his awesome responsibilities and begins to lay out for the nation what he's got in mind for the next four years.

But it's a delicate thing to get not just the tone and content right, but also the length.

George Washington took just a few minutes to deliver his 1,435-word first inaugural address in 1789, which was notable for his refusal to accept any salary. His second such speech four years later consisted of just 135 words.

William Henry Harrison droned on for one hour and 45 minutes when he took office in 1841. Standing hatless and coatless on a cold, stormy day, he prophetically pledged to be a one-term president.

A month later, he was dead from pneumonia.

Most multi-term presidents have ignored Washington's precedent and given longer encore speeches. But like most wartime presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt — President George W. Bush was a bit less lengthy when he was sworn in a second time in 2005.

FDR's opening addresses, for example, shrank from just under 2,000 words in 1933 to barely 500 as World War II drew toward a close in 1945.

Lincoln's "with malice toward none, with charity toward all" admonition for treatment of the fallen South came in one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.

FDR's short comments from the South Portico of the White House spoke of the nation going through "a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage, of our resolve, of our wisdom, our essential democracy."

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