Jill Lepore: Have inaugural addresses been getting worse?





Barack Obama has been studying up, reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, raising everyone’s expectations for what just might be the most eagerly awaited Inaugural Address ever. Presidential eloquence doesn’t get much better than the argument of Lincoln’s first inaugural and the poetry of his second. Reading Lincoln left James Garfield nearly speechless. Garfield undertook to read the Inaugural Addresses of every President who preceded him. “Those of the past except Lincoln’s, are dreary reading,” he noted. A bad Inaugural Address doesn’t always augur a bad Presidency. Writer mentions addresses by James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Warren G. Harding. Since 1893, a complete set of inaugural texts has been reissued every few decades or so, including this year, “Fellow Citizens: The Penguin Book of U.S. Presidential Inaugural Addresses,” edited by Robert V. Remini and Terry Golway. Before Calvin Coolidge’s speech was broadcast over the radio, in 1925, the inaugurals were basically only read, usually in the newspaper. Since Truman’s, in 1949, inaugurals have been televised, and since Bill Clinton’s second, in 1997, they have been streamed online. Describes Garfield’s struggle to write his address. The Constitution says nothing about an Inaugural Address. It calls only for the President to take an oath. After George Washington was sworn in on April 30, 1789, he entered Federal Hall in New York and made a speech before Congress. Like most things Washington did, this set a precedent. Tells about the inaugurals of James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison. Discusses Lincoln’s revision of remarks William Seward had added to his first inaugural: “The mystic chords of memory…” James Garfield wrote his inaugural alone. Mentions “Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words” by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, which argues that inaugural rhetoric serves, among other aims, the purpose of reuniting the people after an election. Jeffrey Tulis has pointed out that every nineteenth century inaugural but one mentions the Constitution. Meanwhile, only half the inaugurals of the twentieth century contain the word “Constitution.” Discusses Elvin T. Lim’s argument that Presidents pander to the people. Lim dates the institutionalization of the anti-intellectual Presidency to 1969 when Nixon established the first White House speechwriting office. Writer quotes from Garfield’s inaugural comments on slavery. “Fifty years hence our children...will surely bless their fathers…that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law.”


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