With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Larry Sabato: Inaugurations Past and Present ... How Will Obama Measure Up?

Rituals matter in any society, but in a democracy they are especially significant. Most authoritarian regimes are stable for long periods of time; the barrel of a gun ensures it. Democratic societies can change rapidly with public opinion, and a new administration is frequently the polar opposite of its predecessor.

How best to balance the need for change with the assurance of continuity? Ceremony. Of all our national rites of passage, none has more significance than the inauguration of a President. The simple oath of office, stretching back 220 years, links Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and Founders in an unbroken line. Now there's a security blanket for an anxious citizenry, especially those who didn't vote for the new President.

We have added many pieces to the straightforward oath. Massive crowds, prayers and choirs, poems and salutations galore, 19-gun salutes and vast inaugural parades and balls--all of these are considered de rigueur for a new President. The tiniest ceremonial part can generate controversy, as we have just seen with Barack Obama's selection of evangelical Christian preacher Rick Warren to deliver the invocation.

Americans expect to see the new and old Presidents together in a show of unity, however forced or phony. An unhappy, vanquished John Adams left town in the wee hours before his victorious successor, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in on March 4, 1801. In the present day it would be considered very bad form for the outgoing Chief Executive to skip the incoming's oath-taking. The two Presidents do not have to like one another and do not have to chat in the car from the White House to the Capitol on Inauguration Day. Herbert Hoover and FDR said barely a word in 1933 during their short journey, and neither did Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. The image of harmony was what counted.

Of all the inaugural puzzle parts, the most commented upon is 'the speech'. The inaugural address can be a discourse for the ages or an oration for the present moment. Generally, expect the latter. A quick read of all inaugural addresses leads to an inescapable conclusion: very few have been memorable.

George Washington's second was so short (four sentences prior to taking the oath) it couldn't be called an address. Almost all the others relied upon a formula that guaranteed oblivion. The new President detailed proposals about the transient issues of the day, mixed with campaign boilerplate and empty platitudes about politics. William Henry Harrison in 1841 was the wordiest ever, taking an hour and forty five minutes in a snowstorm without warm clothing. Some said (incorrectly) that the longest inaugural produced the shortest Presidency. Harrison's death occurred a month afterwards, from pneumonia, but the disease was almost certainly contracted in his third week in office. Harrison's anti-Jacksonian inaugural address, partly the work of Daniel Webster, was adorned with allusions to the Greeks and the Romans. It made the case for the preeminence of the legislative branch as well as "sound morals". Yet it contained not a single sentence worth repeating here.

Occasional lines from inaugural addresses make their way into the public consciousness. Historians remember Thomas Jefferson's attempt at bipartisan reunification in the wake of the divisive 1800 election, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." Abraham Lincoln's first address on March 4, 1861 would surprise contemporary citizens who think of Lincoln only as the "Great Emancipator," for the new President hoped to avert a full-fledged civil war by being shockingly tolerant of slavery's continuance. He appealed to "the better angels of our nature" and sought mainly to urge that the "bonds of affection" between North and South not be broken.

The bloody Civil War changed all that. Lincoln's unforgettable second address on March 4, 1865, included a sentence with which all Americans are familiar. Just five weeks before his assassination, Lincoln declared, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds..." Tragically for the United States of Lincoln's day and generations thereafter, the President's plea was rejected by John Wilkes Booth (who actually attended the swearing-in at the Capitol and whose image in the crowd was captured by a photographer).

Three score and eight years later, Americans heard the next enduring inaugural speech. At the depths of the Depression, with a run on the banks threatening to demolish what was left of the nation's economic superstructure, Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed at the outset of his address, "All we have to fear is [dramatic pause] fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." FDR's entreaty made a difference. Before March 4th, citizens had never been so apprehensive, anxious, and desperate. Then a strong leader gave them hope, and rallied his countrymen at a moment when a quarter of the people were unemployed and millions were starving.

In reading the inaugural addresses, one is struck that in the broad sweep of American history, there is arguably only one speech that transcends the concerns of the moment and speaks to every generation anew, from beginning to end, without becoming dated. That one is John F. Kennedy's. It was almost an address not delivered, at least not to a large outdoor crowd--a vital backdrop that enabled JFK to project the power and vigor he sought for his administration. Heavy snow overnight on January 19, 1961 nearly led to a cancellation of the outdoor ceremonies and parade. But Kennedy's team insisted on going forward, and the youngest elected President knew he had the oratorical flourishes to inspire a nation. Kennedy's is an address that should first be read in its entirety and then watched for effect. Intoxicating sentences touch the heart and stir the soul in a lyrical fashion worthy of the inauguration's featured poet, Robert Frost. Here are just a few:

"Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans..."

"...[W]e shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

"Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

"All of this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

"Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

"With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

I was a Catholic schoolboy watching JFK on a black-and-white television on that Inauguration Friday. The teachers, the priests and the nuns, my classmates, all of us knew instantly that we had watched something truly special. No doubt the excitement of seeing a Roman Catholic finally break the religious barrier at the White House contributed to the rush of the moment. Many of us went home, grabbed the evening newspaper (which was a staple in those days), and committed the speech to memory. After all these years, I wrote most of the excerpts printed above from the 1/20/61 recording in my head.

It wasn't just the prose. A brilliant speech was made unforgettable by Kennedy's masterful delivery. President Kennedy, elected with one of the slimmest pluralities in history, feared by many in the Protestant majority for his 'ties to the Vatican', regarded as a callow youth insufficiently experienced to be Chief Executive, launched his administration not with an election but a speech. And his popularity soared from that instant. You could almost hear many Americans breathing a sigh of relief, accepting that, maybe, just maybe, the country was in capable hands and the Pope wouldn't be running the United States after all.

With a Presidency that eerily lasted only the thousand days he had mentioned in his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy never had a chance to build a lasting record. However, the inaugural legacy he left has haunted every one of his successors. The speeches of Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and Richard Nixon in 1969 and 1973 were pedestrian in their prose and dull in their delivery. Nothing at all remains in the public mind from their inaugural days in the sun.

My first opportunity to attend an inaugural in person came in 1977. My political mentor at the time, former Virginia Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, had been one of the first major politicians outside Georgia to endorse a little-known ex-governor by the name of Jimmy Carter. Those of us on Howell's staff thought the boss had gone a bit bonkers to back this certain loser. The rest is written in the history texts, and Howell was forgiving enough to share his front-section seats with a few of us doubters. Expectations were sky-high for Carter, but with all due respect to the former President, it was one of the worst-delivered inaugural speeches in the television age. Only Carter's salute to outgoing President Ford roused the crowd, and the new President mumbled and stumbled his way through the rest. There was no JFK rebirth that day.

Some of Carter's successors offered better addresses, for sure. Ronald Reagan could have held an audience's attention by reading the telephone directory, and he produced more than a few stellar speeches during his Presidency. Yet neither of his inaugural gambits soared. The first was overshadowed by the simultaneous release of the American hostages by Iran, the second by weather so frigid that the outdoor ceremonies were cancelled and Reagan's address was given to a small group of VIPs huddled inside the Capitol--which ruined the effect. George H. W. Bush would be the first to admit that he cannot deliver a speech well, and he didn't on January 20, 1989. The only lingering memory of that day was Bush's reaching out, literally and figuratively, to the Democratic leaders of Congress. They shook Bush's hand, all right, but almost immediately began undermining his legislative proposals. Bill Clinton delivered two polished addresses in 1993 and 1997 that no one recalls. George W. Bush was too weak from the divided overtime election of 2000 to propose anything electrifying in 2001, and he was too divisive and burdened by Iraq in 2005 to bring the country together. His inaugural addresses, like so many of his predecessors, were just words on parchment.

The gold standard remains Kennedy. Every President in the television age has been, and will continue to be, measured against his address. Even in grainy black-and-white, after the passage of nearly a half-century, his remarks thrill.

Barack Obama has been compared to Kennedy--an association avidly encouraged by his staff (when they are not mentioning Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt). Like JFK, Obama has moved millions with his exhortations. Obama was embraced by Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy at a critical moment in the Democratic primary campaign. Wags have claimed that Camelot is being replaced by Obama-lot.

But the pressure is on Obama. The videotape won't lie. Can Obama rhetorically match or exceed JFK when he finishes the oath-taking and steps up to the microphone later this month? Obama's inaugural address won't determine the success or failure of his time in office. Yet as Kennedy demonstrated, it can do a great deal to rally a nation and help a President move his agenda forward in the early days.
Read entire article at Larry Sabato's CrystalBall newsletter