David Frum

01.21.13

Why Inaugural Speeches Fail

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My CNN column explains why President Obama's inaugural address is likely to fail.

The inaugural addresses of the presidents are, for the most part, a wasteland of howling rhetoric and dried-out inspiration.

History has little noted, nor has it long remembered, more than a handful of them. Lincoln's two inaugural addresses stand (of course) as the great exception. Franklin Roosevelt's addresses in 1933 and 1937 remain alive, as does the sonorous rhetoric of John F. Kennedy's address in 1961. We continue to quote a single sentence from Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural, a sentence from Ronald Reagan's first and a two-word phrase from Lyndon Johnson's. After that ...

After that, you get a lot of this:

"Liberty -- liberty within the law -- and civilization are inseparable, and though both were threatened, we find them now secure; and there comes to Americans the profound assurance that our representative government is the highest expression and surest guaranty of both."
Who said that? It could have been any one of 20 presidents. (In this case, the speaker happens to be Warren G. Harding.)

Writing a great inaugural speech must be very hard, since even many strong and important presidents failed to do it.

Theodore Roosevelt failed. Dwight Eisenhower failed. Barack Obama failed the first time, and since second inaugural addresses are almost always even worse than firsts, it seems almost certain he'll fail again on Monday.

Why do inaugural addresses fail?

They fail for two reasons: One subject to the speaker's control; the other, not.

100 years of inaugurations in 2 minutes Doris Kearns Goodwin on Obama's 2nd term 2009: Obama inauguration makes history
They fail, first, because the grandeur of the occasion inspires new presidents and their teams to overblown rhetoric, even as their political advisers steer them away from too specific commitments. Grand language wrapped around a thin message produces only vapid blather.

Consider, for example, this passage from Obama's first inaugural address:

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history ...."
Unfortunately for Obama, those words were false as description and therefore inaccurate as prediction. You might say that the line "we come to proclaim an end to ... false promises" was itself a false promise. Good writing can never come from bad thinking.

But there's another source of failure, one not so easily corrected. Inaugural addresses can fail even when the ideas are clear, even when the writing is fine, if the addresses make commitments that the ensuing presidency cannot deliver.

Listen to this inspiring passage.

Read the rest at CNN.