Most inaugural speeches would put you to sleep

Thomas V. DiBacco

January 19, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

SINCE 1789, when George Washington assumed the nation' highest office, 51 inaugural addresses have been presented. There is no constitutional requirement for such remarks, but Washington felt it proper to use the occasion to present his views about the newly adopted Constitution.

Like much of George's presidential activities, the inaugural speech became a precedent, but not necessarily a good one.

Most of the addresses have been rich in platitudes and thin in substance. What is worse, each speech appears to have been modeled after previous ones, providing a sort of compound uninterest for the listener.

As a general rule, the addresses have three parts:

(1) Declaration that having been elected makes the president proud and/or humble.

(2) Review of selected phases of American history.

(3) Reference to the goals to which the new administration will be committed.

Occasionally, there are kind words about predecessors -- but only occasionally.

There is something of an inverse correlation between the length of the inaugural address and the quality of the presidency. Chief executives most highly rated by historians were taciturn. Washington's second address totaled only 137 words, and brevity was the story for Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson and FDR. The longest address -- more than 8,000 words -- was given by short-lived William Henry Harrison.

Had Harrison not been so windy in presenting a civics lesson on March 4, 1841, he might have served out his term.

As it was, Washington's cold inaugural weather (as will be the case again in 1993) gave him a bad cold, and a month later he expired.

The less illustrious presidents gave some indication of their frailties. Zachary Taylor, a military man for four decades, was no master of words and held up a standard of office much more rigorous than the constitutional mandate: "So far as it is possible to be informed, I shall make honesty, capacity and fidelity indispensable prerequisites to the bestowal of office, and absence of either [sic] of these qualities shall be deemed sufficient cause for removal."

Franklin Pierce began his speech in a manner that reflected the distraught nature of the leadership he would provide: "My Countrymen: It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself." Then there was Calvin Coolidge, whose lecture on government on March 4, 1925, was, well, elementary: ". . .the essence of a republic is representative government.

"Our Congress represents the people and the states. In all legislative affairs it is the natural collaborator with the president."

Some of the better presidents took the inaugural occasion to illustrate profiles in courage. Rutherford B. Hayes, a one-term president, proposed a constitutional amendment limiting the chief executive to a single six-year term. John F. Kennedy ("ask not what your country can do for you . . .") and Grover Cleveland emphasized citizen activism and warned against government paternalism.

In Cleveland's words, "The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people."

Lackluster as inaugural addresses have been, there is, on occasion, a bit of solace to be derived from them. Problems facing the federal government never seem to change, as illustrated by the budgetary woes of incoming chief executive Bill Clinton and a couple of 19th century presidents.

"Our present financial condition," lamented James Buchanan in 1857, "is without parallel in history. No nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its treasury."

Thirty-two years later Benjamin Harrison echoed Buchanan: "While a Treasury surplus is not the greatest evil, it is a serious evil."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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