Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Inaugural Addresses: Insider Accounts of How and Why They Matter

Panel on Inaugural Addresses with Presidential Speechwriters Ray Price (Nixon); Don Baer (Clinton); Patrick Anderson (Carter)

The inaugural address is one of the most important speeches a president will give. It has a special place in political life because it documents the history of the nation. Indeed, as Ken Khachigian, the chief speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, noted:

One thing that struck me about reading all the inaugural addresses is that they are a history of America. You can go through, beginning with Washington, and you can learn all about the country just by reading them. If you did nothing else, you’d know almost all about the history of the Civil War, about the Depression, about World War I, about World War II, and about the Vietnam War.

Don Baer, speechwriter for Bill Clinton, summed up the importance of the inaugural address as “the one communal national monument that we have had right along, throughout the entire history of country.” And Ray Price speechwriter for Richard Nixon, called the inaugural a “ceremonial speech with a programmatic content” and “one of the great sacraments of democracy.” He said the opening lines of Nixon’s first inaugural summed up what the sacrament is:

“Senator [Everett] Dirksen, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, President Johnson, Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey, my fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community, I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.”

In June 2008, the Miller Center hosted a symposium on presidential speechmaking that featured nine former Republican and Democratic speechwriters who served every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton.  One of the sessions included a discussion on Inaugural Addresses. The session provided an insider account of writing the inaugural address, what makes an effective inaugural and what the addresses should be about. In this post, we highlight some of their key insights.

Patrick Anderson, speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, noted that in an inaugural address, you introduce yourself as President, you are no longer just a candidate:

It is solemn. It is historic. I think it I also, under the surface, a very competitive situation, because you are very aware that you are going to be judged against [John F.] Kennedy and [Ronald] Reagan and other great speeches of the past – which tends to inspire both the candidate and his writers to make their best effort. It shouldn’t be partisan or political. It should be inspirational and personal, I think. It should be an attempt to unite the nation for a new start, which all new presidents think they’re going to accomplish.

Baer added:

I think that inaugural addresses ought to be elevating. I think they need to remind the nation more of what we have in common than what divides us.