By Calvin Woodward
WASHINGTON — Inaugurations that loom large in history are seen differently at the time.
Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech was panned in some quarters as "a sea of twaddle." Newspaper front pages were largely silent on Franklin Roosevelt's call to fear nothing but fear itself. "Ask not" was reflected — not — in leading accounts of John F. Kennedy's big speech.
It's possible Americans will again miss the lasting point when Barack Obama becomes president Tuesday. The present is blind to what the future can see.
Speechwriters, for one group, can't see the long view. The harder they try to come up with the phrase that lasts forever, the more they are apt to fail, said Theodore C. Sorensen, a Kennedy speechwriter who, perhaps out of modesty, claimed no authorship of famous lines from Jan. 20, 1961.
Journalists? It's not for nothing their craft is called the first draft of history.
In 1933, accounts of the day focused on the economic nitty gritty of Roosevelt's Depression-era address, not his rousing chin-up to the nation.
Kennedy's speech was perceived as a tough-talking Cold War treatise more than as a call to service, generational change and idealism.
"'Never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate' and 'pay any price, bear any burden' are far more important ideas in the Kennedy inaugural address than 'Ask not,'" said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Pay any price," in particular, may have forecast not only Kennedy's steely resolve against the Soviets but U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Yet the future most remembers Kennedy's finger-jabbing demand: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
(Asked by The New York Times last year whether he wrote that, Sorensen coyly replied, "Ask not.")
Roosevelt told the nation: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
FDR biographer H.W. Brands, in his 2008 book "Traitor to His Class," said that line would soon become a landmark of presidential rhetoric.
"At the time it didn't seem so," he wrote, "not least since it was patently false. Americans had plenty to fear, starting with massive unemployment, widespread hunger, and a collapsing financial system."
Ronald Reagan's tone of renewal — sweetened by the release of U.S. hostages by Iran — was the story of the day at his inaugural. The part that historians consider most significant now was his declaration that "government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem," because it presaged change in the ways of Washington.
Lincoln spoke to his people in a lawyerly fashion throughout much of his first inaugural, building a case step by step to save the union on the edge of civil war. "If a minority, in such case, will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them."
Then he spoke as a poet and, in effect, over the heads of his people — to generations to come — in closing lines that invoked "bonds of affection" between North and South that were not felt at the time.
"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
"It's very eloquent but it's fruitless," said Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University. "Lincoln always exaggerated the degree to which the white South felt these bonds to stay in the union."
Fruitless then, exalted now.
When Lincoln gave his second inaugural at the close of the war, he appealed for healing "with malice toward none, with charity for all," in rhetoric that again became iconic.
But elements of the partisan press in the North were hardly blown away, never mind the South.
The Utica (N.Y.) Telegraph said Lincoln "labors and stumbles and soon flounders into a sea of twaddle, in which he is lost not only to sight but to every one of the senses (common sense not excepted)."
And that claimed to be a politically allied publication.
The Syracuse (N.Y.) Daily Courier and Union chimed in that Lincoln was a "small-potato politician," "an obscure village lawyer, elevated from the dregs of society to a position far beyond his just deserts."
The future sees what they could not. Now Obama, a student of Lincoln, speaks today from the memorial to the 16th president. Two days later he makes his own history — as the first black president, and perhaps in ways the present can't comprehend.