Enter, with caution

January 19, 2001|By Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg

HISTORIAN Arthur Schlesinger once labeled the presidential inaugural address as "an inferior art form [with a high] platitude quotient" and "few surprises."

In fact, Mr. Schlesinger is right about most, but not all, inaugurals.

For example, try this one: What 19th-century president said in his first inaugural address: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Hint: In running for the Senate two years earlier, he said he yielded to no man in his belief in the superiority of the white man over the black man.

The surprising answer is Lincoln. But the bigger surprise is that inaugural speeches need not be boring and platitudinous, nor do they necessarily come back to haunt the presidential speaker.

Not surprisingly, President-elect George W. Bush doesn't have a hard act to follow. President Clinton's first and second inaugurals were typically non-memorable. In the first, he certainly fulfilled Mr. Schlesinger's prophecy. As just one example, his speech was filled with a concept pilfered from Ronald Reagan, "renewal." A typical line: "To renew America, we must revitalize our democracy."

Even though he had indicated at the end of 1996 that he had been studying inaugurals and their "catch phrases" in preparation, Mr. Clinton's 1997 inaugural was only slightly better.

It was an ode to the 20th century and America's accomplishments, one which promised a smaller but more efficient government accompanied by the expropriation of the Republican term, "responsibility" (weren't you listening, Al Gore?). The speech was short on specifics and long on generalities ("Education will be every citizen's most prized possession"; "We will stand mightily for peace and freedom").

Mr. Clinton's empty rhetoric was not the first to embrace what rhetoricians call "cant," or vacuous and pious meandering.

It is difficult to find a worst inaugural, although William Henry Harrison's 8,578-word snoozer might qualify. But Jimmy Carter's was a close second for empty rhetoric.

He actually said, "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 meaningless meandering moved New York Times columnist William Safire to claim that his speech ranked "lower than the inaugural of Millard Fillmore." Fillmore's speech was indeed forgettable; he never gave one.

To be fair, presidential inaugurals have produced little in the way of memorable speech. With the exceptions of a few chosen words, inaugurals have little presence in our collective memory.

There is Lincoln's "malice toward none," Franklin D. Roosevelt's "nothing to fear but fear itself" and John F. Kennedy's somewhat surprisingly conservative phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Also, specifics are usually not required in an inaugural, which may be why rhetoricians call ceremonial speeches "fit for display." There is a danger of inaugural words coming back to haunt the president.

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.

What should Mr. Bush do? This is an opportunity for him to be a better speaker stylistically and substantively than many will expect.

In domestic policy, Mr. Bush should indicate his preference for shifting power from the federal government to the states, saying, "States can run states," or some variation on his expression "Texans can run Texas." He also should re-emphasize his campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism." In foreign policy, he should spell out a less intrusive, but not isolationist, and consistent foreign policy.

After an acrimonious and disputed election, Mr. Bush might, as Richard M. Nixon did in his first inaugural in 1969, beseech Americans to "lower our voices." That recommendation did not do much to attenuate either the angry exchanges over Vietnam, to which it referred, or Watergate, which truncated Mr. Nixon's second term in August 1974. But it might work for the more low-key Mr. Bush.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of communications at Towson University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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