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,

You’re right. All too often, presidents choke. Why? Because they’re trying too hard. W. should relax, say what he has to say, then turn, stride up the steps to the Capitol, and get right down to business, signing a few proclamations or executive orders.

Doing so would sit well with the man himself. He knows he’s not Washington or Lincoln. It would fit the times. We face neither an economic crisis (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), nor an intimidating enemy (“Let every nation know … that we shall pay any price, bear any burden … in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”). Taxes need to be cut. Social Security and Medicare have to be reformed. Education needs to be improved. But these issues are suited to plain talk, not soaring rhetoric.

Speaking simply would also enable W. to present the contrast between himself and—at this point you may grimace—Bill Clinton. Like much of his presidency, Clinton’s first inaugural betrayed a sense of overexertion—of trying too hard. Although the ceremony was taking place in the middle of winter, Clinton remarked, “we force the spring.” Not content to defy the laws of nature, in his next sentence he went on to describe his inauguration as an event “that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America,” blithely announcing that he intended to improve on the work of the Founders. The press may have found the display impressive, but less giddy minds knew just what to make of it: hubris. W. should demonstrate dignity instead.

I entirely agree with you that the big issue—the one that every member of W.’s audience, which is to say about one-third of the population of the planet, will be waiting for him to address is, as you put it, “the premise that he didn’t actually, well, win.” The quotation from Jefferson’s first inaugural that you cited is marvelous—powerful, generous, resonant. It made me curious about how other presidents who had scraped into office might have explained themselves. So I checked the inaugural addresses of the three presidents who, like W. himself, won in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote.

Benjamin Harrison? A pompous gasbag. (“There is no constitutional or legal requirement that the President take the oath of office in the presence of the people, but there is so manifest an appropriateness in the public induction into office of the chief executive officer of the nation that …” blah, blah, blah.)

Rutherford Hayes? Technically, not bad. He demonstrates a sense of rhythm, typically dividing a sentence into carefully balanced clauses in the old-fashioned, Ciceronian manner. (“I shall not undertake to lay down irrevocably principles or measures of administration, but rather to speak of the motives which should animate us, and to suggest certain important ends to be attained in according with our institutions and essential to the welfare of our country.”) But does Hayes produce any insights trenchant enough to be worth repeating today? He never even comes close.

John Quincy Adams? Adams has such a reputation as an embittered failure that I wasn’t expecting to find much. Instead I found pay dirt:

 … my first resort will be to that Constitution to which I shall swear to the best of my ability to preserve, protect, and defend. … in its first words [it] declares the purposes to which these and the whole action of the Government instituted by it should be invariably and sacredly devoted—to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,  promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to the people of this Union and their successive generations. Since the adoption of this social compact one of these generations has passed away. … it has not disappointed the hopes and aspirations of those illustrious benefactors of their age and nation. … We now receive it as a precious inheritance …

Quoting Adams’ hymn to the Constitution would enable W. to pay tribute, as does Adams, to his father, and then to remark, as does Adams, upon the rise of a new generation (W. might even say a word about the first member of our generation to serve as president, Bill Clinton—he’s going to have to be gracious to your old boss somewhere in the speech). Most important, of course, quoting Adams would enable Bush to make an indirect but powerful point about the unusual way he came to office—namely, that he won because the Constitution says so.

“Quincy” quoting Quincy. While he’s still holed up at the ranch, W. might give it some thought.

I’ll be on a plane all day today, landing in Washington just in time to catch a cab to the Judson Welliver dinner. See you there.