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The Best and the Worst of Inaugural Addresses

Bob Dart, for the Cox News Service (1-16-05):

The best have spawned the phrases that defined an American president for the ages.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all ..."

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ..."

"Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

When President Bush delivers his second inaugural address on Thursday, his words may abide in textbooks for centuries to come. Or, as with such speeches by most presidents, his sentences may sink in history's cesspool of cliche and boilerplate.

Rarely have inaugural addresses ascended to greatness, historians agree.

"Inaugurations are heralded events but rhetorically disappointing," said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towsend University in Maryland. "The historian Arthur Schlesinger called inaugural addresses 'an inferior art form with a high platitude quotient.' That is obviously true."

"There are only three or four that would merit book length treatment" by future historians, said Stephen Browne, a Penn State professor who wrote one of those books himself, "Thomas Jefferson's Call to Nationhood: The First Inaugural Address."

"Certainly Jefferson's, Lincoln's, JFK's are amongst the top three or four," said Browne. But while few have been memorable, he said, and only a merciful handful have been "resoundingly bad."

In this era of TV sound bites, communications consultants and speechwriting by committee, a safe formula has evolved that that most presidents follow in their inaugural addresses.

"Now you could switch George W's with Clinton's and there wouldn't be a lot of difference," said Browne.

Modern inaugural speeches are invariably upbeat and generalized while touching on the issues of the day. Presidents of both parties call for post-election healing and promise bipartisan cooperation. Humor is rarely attempted. "Renewal" is an oft-used theme. Ever since John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" and Lyndon Baines Johnson's "Great Society," presidents have sought similar catch phrases of their own.

"Jimmy Carter tried to coin the 'New Spirit' and it never went anywhere," recalled Vatz. "Nixon tried a 'Driving Dream.' George Bush senior had the 'New Breeze.' Clinton's was the 'New Covenant.' None of those seemed to last. But everybody likes 'renewal.' "

For good or bad, at least parts of several inaugural addresses have survived the decades.

George Washington's second inaugural address is historic in its brevity -- four sentences. One was this encompassing promise: "This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony."

Jefferson's first inaugural address came at the conclusion of a bitter political campaign. That presidential race "was notable for anger and mudslinging, personal attacks, skullduggery" and modern campaigns are wimps in comparison, said Browne. Many thought the incoming president would continue the partisanship in his inaugural speech. Instead, Browne said, Jefferson "set the benchmark for all future presidents."

Since 1801, the speeches all "make sure the inaugural unites rather than divides," said Browne. "We can thank Jefferson for that."

"Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,"

Jefferson noted at his first inaugural. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

Historic speeches sometimes spring from historic times. Bracketing the Civil War, both of Lincoln's inaugural addresses are rated by historians as among the best....