Incoming Presidents LAbor with 'an Inferior Art Form'

January 17, 1993|By RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

"The inaugural address is an inferior art form . . . the platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving . . . and the surprises few."

0$ -- Historian Arthur Schlesinger.

Inaugural speeches are not -- at least not always -- what they are reputed to be: boring, platitudinous and meaningless.

First let us concede that some inaugural speeches are nothing more than what rhetoricians call "cant," or vacuous and pious meandering. Take Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural -- please.

Even by the yardstick of the expected grandiloquent singsong of inaugurals, President Carter's may have set a new standard: "Ours was the first society to define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty. It is that unique self-definition which has given us an exceptional appeal -- but it also imposes on us a special obligation to take on those moral duties which, when assumed, seemed invariably to be in our own self-interest."

Mr. Carter's empty cant so put off columnist and word-maven William Safire that he claimed it ranked "lower than the inaugural of Millard Fillmore," who may have had the most forgettable inaugural -- he never gave one.

Or take Goerge Bush's second-grade simile: "Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze."

But some inaugurals offer great historic lessons, ironies and even -- at rare moments -- insights into the style and agenda of a president.

If he has studied his inaugural history, Bill Clinton will know that he should resist the urge to give a lengthy speech since there is at least anecdotal evidence that lengthy inaugural addresses can be hazardous to the health: William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural on record (8,578 words, about 5,000 words more than the average) and promised preciently that "under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term." He died a month later, but should be remembered as a president who kept an inaugural promise.

Another lesson to be learned from inaugural history: Efforts to use the speech to implant a slogan into the national lexicon often produce embarrassing failures. Mr. Carter failed with the "new spirit," Mr. Bush failed with the "new breeze," and Mr. Clinton will fail if he resurrects the affected "new covenant" from his acceptance speech.

In fact, presidential inaugurals have produced little in the way of memorable speech. Most Americans probably would be able to recite no more than three or four phrases from past inaugurals: Abraham Lincoln's "malice toward none," Franklin D. Roosevelt's nothing to fear but fear itself" and John F. Kennedy's over-quoted and incongruous (for a reputed liberal) "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

While inaugurals have not left us with much moving and unforgettable eloquence, they nonetheless have produced some memorable rhetorical ironies, notable hypocracies and unfulfilled promises.

Herbert Hoover's inaugural was an upbeat appraisal of the future of the American economy. He stated that "in no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure." Wall Street crashed before the end of the year.

Richard Nixon implored his fellow Americans to "lower our voices," decrying "angry rhetoric that fans discontent into hatreds [and] bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading." The Nixon administration then promptly became the administration of polarization and invective, inveighing against "student bums," "rotten apples" and the "effete corps of impudent snobs."

Mr. Carter claimed he discerned a "new spirit" in America, and then became the president to deplore a disabling malaise in the country (although he never actually called it a "malaise.")

George Bush stated in his inaugural -- and italicized it in the prepared text -- "That [Vietnam] war cleaves us still. But, friends, that war began in earnest a quarter of a century ago, and surely the statute of limitations has been reached." The imperative of letting bygones be bygones did not dissuade Bush from lambasting Bill Clinton in the presidential campaign for his anti-war activities from 1968-1972.

History also teaches that there is significant risk in policy-specific inaugurals, as they can come back to haunt presidents. Mr. Nixon never lived down his disingenuous call to "lower our voices," and Mr. Reagan never escaped taunts resulting from his 1980 inaugural in which he decried the catastrophic implications of a runaway deficit: "For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present."

Mr. Bush's inaugural attacked the widespread use of illicit drugs and promised that "This scourge will stop." It did not require Monday morning quarterbacking to see that that was an ill-conceived pledge, as ill-conceived as his pledge that "We have a deficit to bring down." Mr. Clinton will likely become the third president to falter on deficit-reduction pledges.

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