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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.

Baer also suggested that inaugural addresses must strike a balance between thematic and programmatic content:

…writing only about the thematic can leave the listeners pretty empty. The concrete and the specific do come into play in very important ways…if you think about that speech [Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address] in particular, it’s a very specific speech with a great deal of very concrete and focused policy woven into it. I think we’ve all struggled with that challenge. You wan to make sure that everyone understands precisely what you’re talking about even as you’re trying to frame it in language that is more inspirational for the country.

Price drew attention to one of the key differences between a first inaugural and a second inaugural address:

The first is more dramatic because it is the start of something new. The second is a continuation. The inaugural is a ceremonial occasion. It is not a time for hortatory or that sort of thing. There’s a lot less drama to the second inaugural. You’re trying to keep something going, knowing that most administrations tend to go downhill in their second term. My guess is that it’s rare that the second term matches the first. You lose steam. The people who came in are tired. New people are coming in and so forth. Most people have no idea how exhausting the White House can be for people in it, unless they’ve been there…especially speechwriters…

You’re trying to inject a little new vigor and new life, some new ideas in the second term, but knowing that it is a different kind of newness.

Don Baer noted that another key difference between the first and second inaugural is the fact that the president is still governing:

It’s very difficult to find the moment to pause and step aside to think through what is, in some respects, one of the most important addresses than any one of these people will ever make, to build a process that helps you do that while you’re also churning out the daily speeches, and to put some people on the side to think about it some more…The process begins to break down the closer and closer you get to the speech…There were some long nights of the soul in the four or five days leading up to the speech.

The panelists also suggested that a president should write as much of the inaugural address as he is able and willing to, but speechwriters also have a role in it. Richard Nixon, for example, worked with Price on the inaugural address. Jimmy Carter took over the writing of his inaugural address and made it personal. Carter included lines speaking directly to the people that Anderson would have advised against, such as:

Your strength can compensate for my weakness and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, sought advice and counsel from a wide circle of people, including authors and former speechwriters, typically Democrats. His speechwriters were charged with trying to help control what was included.

The speechwriters also discussed how the audience is different for inaugurations. Price, for example, noted that the audience is much broader that people who actually attend the ceremony. Presidents are speaking to the nation and to the world and are very conscious of doing so. The delivery of an inaugural is also different from other speeches a president will give because it is delivered outdoors in a big open-air setting. They don’t get the love they are used to from large crowds of people because the president can’t hear the applause. Furthermore, often the weather is cold and gloves muffle applause.

With these insights in mind, we hope you’ll have a better appreciation for the inaugural on Monday!

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