EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 18, 2009

Inaugural addresses have history of eloquence, embarassment

By Lee Bowman

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."

Most new presidents tend to devote more time to laying out their domestic agenda than to matters of foreign affairs — Bush gave such topics little more than a paragraph in 2001.

But Barack Obama steps into leadership facing not only a global economic crisis and an ongoing war against terrorism, but also determined to build up America's image on the international stage. Not to mention laden with a domestic to-do list years in the making.

Still, today's eloquence can become tomorrow's embarrassment. Many presidents have found their words at the start of a term came back to mock them.

Ronald Reagan took flak at the end of his second term for running up then-record deficits — after railing at his first inauguration in 1981 about Democrats "mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present."

"I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope," Herbert Hoover declared on March 4, 1929, just over six months before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression ensued.

"The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our government," James Polk said upon taking office in March 1845, less than a year before sending armies off to invade Mexico.

Over the years, rhetorical flourishes have become honed for sound-bite consumption, replacing the cadenced buildups of speeches in the years before television or radio. But the topics are well-worn.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to talk about education, paying off the national debt and lowering taxes and to complain about press coverage.

John Adams was the first to mention the threat of terrorism. James Monroe, mindful of the recent sacking and burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812, was the first to call for a big defense buildup.

More recently, William McKinley bemoaned deficit spending, and no one had to read his lips on new taxes: "Between loans and more revenue, there ought to be but one opinion," he said. "We should have more revenue, and that without delay."

From George Washington on, presidents at least have made some effort to profess humility and their reluctance to take the job they campaigned so hard to get. Obama will doubtless touch on that theme, too.

But it's unlikely that any modern president will match the disclaimer of Franklin Pierce after he was sworn in back in 1853:

"It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself."