Inauguration Speech Do’s and Don’ts 

Peter Robinson served as a speechwriter for President Reagan. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His new book is titled It’s My Party: A Republican’s Messy Love Affair With the GOP (click hereto buy it). Michael Waldman, former director of speechwriting for President Clinton, is the author of POTUS Speaks (click here to buy it).

Dear Michael,

The editors at Slate tell me they’ve asked you to post an entry first. Since I’ll be tied up in a TV studio most of the day, I won’t be able to reply to you until late in the evening. (I’ll be shooting a show with Milton Friedman on President Clinton’s economic record. I’ll pass along what Milton says, but only if you promise that you really, really want to hear it.) To avoid leaving your entry hanging, so to speak, all by itself in cyberspace, I thought I’d send my note first. Since you’ll lay out what President Bush should try to accomplish in his inaugural address, I thought I’d tell him what he should avoid. It’s simple. He should avoid sounding like Warren G. Harding.

From Harding’s inaugural address:

We would not have an America living within and for herself alone, but we would have her self-reliant, independent, and ever nobler, stronger, and richer. Believing in our higher standards, reared through constitutional liberty and maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights. But pride in things wrought is no reflex of a completed task. Common welfare is the goal of our national endeavor. … We want the cradle of American childhood rocked under conditions so wholesome and so hopeful that no blight may touch it in its development …

Harding’s words are so banal that I find myself feeling numb after reading just a few sentences, but they had the opposite effect on H.L. Mencken, rousing Mencken to a purple wrath—and inspiring him to write perhaps the most wonderfully scathing review of a presidential speech ever composed. “I rise,” Mencken began, “to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding … he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered.”

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

There is a postscript worth adding. About 16 years ago, when I was writing speeches for Ronald Reagan, William Safire, the New York Times columnist, founded a club for presidential speechwriters that he named the Judson Welliver Society (Safire had served in the Nixon White House, writing for both Spiro Agnew and Nixon himself). Who was Judson Welliver? As far as Bill could determine—and when it comes to the murkier aspects of presidential history, Bill has no peer—Judson Welliver was the first person in American history whose more or less full-time job it was to write presidential speeches. Welliver toiled in the White House of … Warren G. Harding.

In case you haven’t opened your mail lately, by the way, the next meeting of the Judson Welliver Society will take place in Washington this Thursday. Mike Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, will be making his first appearance. I thought you and I could take him aside, or at least stuff printouts of our exchange into his overcoat pockets. See you there?