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Inaugural Hits and Misses - An Interview

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Q: I just read FDR's inaugural of 1933 and I was kind of shocked by what he said. He said if Congress wouldn't cooperate with the White House to end "this national emergency," he'd take it upon himself to assume almost war-like powers to do it himself.

A: He predicted one other step in between, which is critical. He was one of the first of the modern presidents to use one of the great techniques that a president has at his disposal, whether it is an inaugural address or other important addresses: He said, "OK, if you're not going to cooperate, here's what I am going to do: I'm going to go over your head and go directly to the electorate as my primary audience and have them put the pressure on you to achieve the goal that I want. It worked for him, obviously.

Q: But with JFK's 1961 speech, there was no crisis, right?

A: It was important because it was reflective of changing the mood of the country and energizing it. Clearly we had problems, significant problems, domestically and internationally. But his focus was more in getting people involved and energized, and he was most successful in doing that. He was telling America you can't be complacent and expect things to happen, which is why the line, paradoxically, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" is so memorable. Not only was the speech a classic in terms of style, but it was classic because he was throwing the burden back -- not to Congress as much as to the general electorate -- saying, "Wait a minute. We can't do it all. You're going to have to help in this process."

Q: In terms of great rhetoric, who's your top pick?

A: John Kennedy, for an inaugural address. But he's not necessarily the greatest rhetorician in terms of presidential rhetoric. Clearly, Ronald Reagan ranks near the very top. First of all, he wasn't identified as "The Great Communicator" for no reason at all. He was able to do one of the things that every presenter has to do if you are going to be a success and that's to do a very sophisticated audience analysis and then figure out who it was that was going to be his primary audience and who it was that was going to be his secondary audience. Every president will do that. In Reagan's case, he wanted Russia to know that he considered them, in the early 1980s, as the Evil Empire. He was going to take them on: "If you want to play games, we're coming after you." He was saying that not to send fear into the nation but to suggest to the nation, "Don't be afraid. Don't be alarmed at my focus on increasing defense and developing a sophisticated Star Wars anti-missile ballistics program." That was what he was able to do.

Q: From a president's point of view, what's a modern inaugural supposed to accomplish?

A: Well, to give at the very least a superficial view of what's to come. But in the case of Obama, I suspect it's going to take on a bit more than just a ceremonial focus. I don't think it will be terribly long, any more than any of the other inaugurals were. They typically range from -- except for one president (William Henry Harrison) -- around 18 to 26 minutes. That's not a long speech. For the most part, he will probably stay within that time frame because he's pretty good at doing that; he's not Bill Clinton.

I think one of the things he's going to do is perhaps be a little less ceremonial and a little bit more specific about what can be expected in his administration because he has been saying all along that we don't have the luxury of time to waste. My prediction is that he is probably going to address the economy, which in his feeling most of the electorate is anxious for something to happen quickly. He's going to be urging the electorate and Congress to work together with the president to move on programs. He may talk about them in general, but he's not going to define them; he doesn't have the luxury of time to do that. That may come in a State of the Union address, and I'm hoping that he gives one.

Q: Who should he emulate?

A: I think he's going to use two people more than others -- the style of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, clearly. He already does that: Look at his victory speech, where he was able to call on a greater power, and he was calling on everyone to join together and he was focusing on the nation as a whole, not as individuals, not as parties, not as conservative or liberal, but rather as a unified, directed organization to achieve a goal. I think that's his major purpose in this inaugural address.

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