Presidential inauguration addresses are like all acceptance speeches, long on thank yous and platitudes, and short on genuine drama and lasting impact. And yet, there are those moments when a particularly high historical moment combines with a gifted orator to create an indelible mark in America’s history books. What’s remembered isn’t a broad theme or policy point, but a single soundbite, a sentence or two, that captures either the zeitgeist of the country or, more broadly, the hopes and dreams of humanity.
No one, of course, did the latter better than Ronald Reagan when he took office in 1981. The country was at a nadir, high unemployment, high inflation, an economy as disheartened as its workers. Ever the optimist, Reagan called for national renewal, using a word that decades later would propel Obama to the White House.
In a time of even deeper economic gloom, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 addressed the country’s misery and its biggest unspoken challenge, the debilitating emotion of fear.
In 1961 (52 years to the day on Sunday), John F. Kennedy, like Reagan, tapped into the better nature of humanity, uttering what is likely the most famous line of any recent inaugural address.
Much further back in history, before America had an established two-party system, Thomas Jefferson touched upon a theme germane to today’s partisan politics. Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, had won a bruising battle with John Adams, a Federalist. For the first time in America’s history, one party was asked to relinquish power to another. In his 1801 speech, Jefferson talked about the peaceful transfer of power. “Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government.”
Sixty-four years later, Abraham Lincoln had the even more difficult task of uniting a nation that had spent four long years in a sustained act of self-mutilation. “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.”
Lincoln was able to reach this point of reasoned compassion because he possessed a few critical characteristics.
Four years is too little time to know how President Obama’s first inaugural address will be remembered (let alone the one he gives on Monday). The speech, however, does have a number of factors working in its favor: the country poised at a defining moment, a man who knows how to give a speech, and a few lines that still make the heart pitter-patter a bit faster.