Bill Steigerwald

Barack Obama's inaugural address on Jan. 20 is awaited with great anticipation by his millions of fans in and out of the media. Will it be as short as Lincoln's 1865 inaugural? As endless as William Henry Harrison's 1841 inaugural? As rousing as JFK's 1961 inaugural? As historic as FDR's 1933 inaugural? As forgettable as Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural? As memorable to conservatives as Reagan's 1981 inaugural? To get some answers about the importance of past inaugural addresses and some predictions about the next one, I telephoned Jerry Shuster, a political communications expert at the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in presidential rhetoric.

Q: Is Barack Obama's inaugural address guaranteed to be historic, no matter what he says?

A: In some limited extent, yes. But by and large, inaugural addresses are not memorable and are historical only in the sense that some presidential anthologies are going to contain the speech. But in Obama's case it likely will be historic.

Q: Are inaugural addresses good predictors of a president's future policies and accomplishments?

A: In general, they are pretty much more ceremonial than anything else. More often than not, presidential inaugural addresses are a superficial indication -- and I use that word "superficial" precisely because superficial is exactly what most of them are except about the four best of them. Probably Obama's will be No. 5 in the mix.

Q: What are your top four inaugural addresses and why are they at the top?

A: Well, because they did precisely what you have asked -- they predicted the outcomes or the possible effectiveness of the new president and his proposed polices. In the case of Washington's, his address was important because it was the first and was the one that lent itself to the direction of the nation at that time; and of course, Lincoln's inaugural address (1861), because it set the tone and pattern for the direction of the nation at a time much similar to ours. The nation was in utter turmoil and he had to attempt to accomplish so much in such little time. Lincoln had to -- as Obama's has also said a number of times -- hit the ground running.

Q: I presume FDR's 1933 speech and-

A: -exactly on target-

Q: -and maybe Reagan's 1981 speech would be the other two in your top four?

A: Actually not -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy's in 1961. I don't know that Reagan's inaugural addresses -- either of them -- were memorable. They were good speeches but not memorable to the extent that they were great predictors of what was to come.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..