Inauguration Speech Do’s and Don’ts 


Yes, indeed, I’m looking forward to seeing you at the Judson Welliver Society meeting. I think readers will be relieved to learn we’re not Trilateralists. (At least, I’m not!) Our motto: No speechwriter has ever been indicted. This year’s dinner coincides with Clinton’s farewell address, so perhaps we should move the dinner to the Green Room at one of the cable networks. For rhetoricians, this is Super Bowl week. Inaugural addresses are a strange species. I worked on two of them—Clinton’s first (pretty good) and second (not so good, though better than it seemed at the time). Presidents know that these words will live in history. We remember the few great ones … with malice toward none, nothing to fear, ask not, and so on. But all too often, presidents choke. Most inaugural addresses are pretty bad. Like most Super Bowls, actually.

What to expect from this one? Many of the best have been those delivered by a new chief executive who has ousted an incumbent, or at least pushed out the party in power. Woodrow Wilson simply began his first address, “There has been a change of government.” So Bush is lucky in that regard.

Even so, he faces an unusually complex task. Approximately half of those who hear his speech start from the premise that he didn’t actually, well, win. Does he address this in some way or simply tough it out? Thus far, he has chosen to act as if he won by a landslide. (I can think of no other explanation for John Ashcroft.) But triumphalism would sound tinny in this speech. The most memorable crisis of Bush’s term may well be the way he achieved office; perhaps he should seek to use the speech to surmount that same crisis. A good model would be Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural. Recall that he was chosen by a deadlocked House of Representatives only a few days before the ceremony. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he declared. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

W’s talented speechwriter, Mike Gerson, could do worse than to quote TJ. Jefferson’s Republicans became today’s Democrats—but we’ll let you borrow him for now.