Ask not why many inaugural speeches are so humdrum

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Posted: Jan 19, 2017 11:29 AM
Ask not why many inaugural speeches are so humdrum

WASHINGTON (AP) — Quick quiz: Recall a phrase, any phrase, from either inaugural speech of one of America's most accomplished political orators, President Barack Obama.

Come up empty? Sad!

Fact is, inaugural speeches are usually not the finest hours in speechmaking, with some towering exceptions brought to us by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and one or two others. Most are a lot of word candy, tasty to the crowds but empty calories for history. It's one thing to be eloquent, another to say something for the ages.

And when an inaugural speech does grab hold of the public imagination, history tends to remember it differently than the way it was received at the time.

John Kennedy's 1961 speech impressed the nation as a hawkish take on the Cold War, which he vowed to "pay any price" to win. The dove was overlooked that day. But what counts to generations after him was JFK's call to public service, punctuated with his fingers jabbing the air: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Some inaugural speeches of note:

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HUMBLE PIE

Thomas Jefferson set a tone of humility in 1801 that many successors emulated, if not as elaborately. Jefferson opened and closed his first inaugural speech by describing his shortcomings and apologizing in advance for all the mistakes he was going to make.

That's not President-elect Donald Trump's style, to say the least. But there is a common thread between the two: In his second inaugural address, Jefferson griped about his press coverage.

Jefferson's 1801 inauguration marked the republic's first transition between parties, prompting the nation's third president to call for unity with the words: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

You can hear echoes of that in Obama's memorable 2004 speech to Democrats, when he talked of red states and blue states joined as one united states, before he ran for president.

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BOOKENDS OF THE CIVIL WAR

Lincoln's first inaugural speech was a long and lawyerly account of how Southern grievances might be resolved without war.

He took flight at the end: "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

The Civil War began the next month, April 1861.

Lincoln's second inaugural speech, perhaps the greatest of any, again spoke of reconciliation, this time with the Confederacy all but crushed and his assassination weeks away. There was no bloodlust in the commander in chief.

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," he said, concluding: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

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TO HEAR HISTORY

Ronald Reagan declared "government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem." The line had staying power because it presaged real change, but only pleased his partisans.

He also, though, painted a picture with sounds, and in doing so spoke to everyone. When he talked of a Revolutionary general falling to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge, he asked people to hear the crunch. He asked Americans to imagine the patter as Lincoln paced dark hallways, to hear the calls of men at the Alamo shouting encouragement to each other, to think of a settler pushing west and singing. "It is the American sound," Reagan said, "this most tender music."

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TO SEE HISTORY

Obama's "Yes we can" mantra was from the 2008 campaign. "Audacity of Hope" was his book. His riff on red and blue states brought him to national attention four years before he won the White House. But his inaugural addresses were not the sources of his most memorable lines.

Eight years ago, he spoke of "gathering clouds and raging storms." That sounded a bit like President George W. Bush's flowery and forgotten assertion in 2001 that "an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." Obama spoke of how "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

If such lines lack transcendence, the speech was momentous nonetheless, because of what the world saw that day: a black man breaking the ultimate barrier and becoming America's president for the first time.

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'PLENTY IS AT OUR DOORSTEP'

Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in during the depths of the Great Depression. While it's every president's job to assure the public better times are coming, no one did it like FDR.

In 1933 he promised: "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

"So, first of all," he continued, "let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

That was the line for the ages.

"Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment," he went on. "Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."

It was his way of saying, Yes we can — make America great again.