Inauguration Speech Do’s and Don’ts 


Good luck in getting from National Airport (or, as you might prefer to call it, Ronald Reagan National Airport) to the dinner. You might run in to 200,000 of your fellow celebrants, not to mention Ricky Martin.

I agree that Bush should speak simply, though perhaps not for the reasons you do. Too often, when he reads an eloquent text, his words seem to soar above his own head. It’s plain that Mike Gerson is quite a bit more eloquent than his boss, and it shows. Fortunately, inaugural addresses are one occasion where clichés are acceptable, so long as they are well-executed clichés. Familiar bases are toucheda tribute to the departing president, an homage to the Founding Fathers, some scripture (Democrats go for the eminently quotable Isaiah), declarations of resoluteness to friend and foe alike. When I was working on the 1993 speech, I posted some rules above my computer: NO REVERSIBLE RAINCOAT SENTENCES. (“Fear/fear itself.” Or better yet, “Sorry, Charliewe don’t want tunas with good taste, we want tunas that taste good!”); and NO QUOTING DEAD PRESIDENTS. We broke every rule.

Word is that the speech will be very shortten to twelve minutes. If so, it would be one of the briefest ever. I am certain that Bush’s political gurus demanded: “Keep it shorter than that windbag Clinton.” Pity the poor researcher who discovered that Clinton’s first inaugural was only 14 minutes long. His second was 22 minutes. Bush père and Reagan both spoke for longer than that.

Short could be sweet. But it’s just as likely that it will be purged of substance. Above all, these addresses are political speeches. They succeed to the extent that they set the stage for the administration’s policy and political goals. That’s what was wrong with Clinton’s 1997 speech. He didn’t really focus on his policy goals until a few weeks later, when we were writing the State of the Union (with a heavy emphasis on education).

Here’s a clue: With an inaugural just hours away, will Bush’s chief speechwriter show up at the Judson Welliver dinner?