To date, there have been 44 United States presidents and on January 21, 2013 , Barack Obama will deliver the 57th Inaurgural Address. And while each speech holds tremendous historical value, very few can be considered rhetorical masterpieces. So what makes a great inaugural speech? What do they say about the president and our country? And what constitutes a success or a failure?
Curious, I decided to read each of the inaugural speeches delivered over the past 228 years, and it was not a walk in the park. James Garfield attempted the same feat prior to his own inaugural address, but quickly delegated it to an assistant. He only had 19 to read. Getting through them is a bit like eating a head of raw broccoli … very substantive, but tough to get through.
That said, between trips to the barista, I was indeed captivated. To read the inaugural speeches back-to-back is to get an abridged and narrated history of our nation. The content of each exposes the character and nature of the president and the nation at a very specific time, highlighting the priorities, principles, anxieties, and dreams. Inaugural speeches set a tone, and create context for a presidency. They mark a transition, from one era to the next … it is a reset, a nod to the past, a portal to the future … continuity captured.
As I read the inaugural speeches, I realized early on that some were more effective than others. The deliveries range from clear to convoluted, pragmatic to pugnacious, inspired to insipid. So, when you become president, whether it is of the United States, your company, or the Lions Club, and need to give an epic address, here are eight lessons I learned from the best and worst of the inaugural addresses.
Lessons From Some Losers:
Keep it Concise.
William Henry Harrison, our 9th president, has the inauspicious and dual distinction of delivering the longest inaugural speech as well as holding the shortest presidency. The 68-year-old delivered a two-hour speech, outside, in a snowstorm, without an overcoat. It was Thursday, March 4, 1891, and after concluding his 8,000-word speech, he remained in the cold for hours greeting well wishers before attending late-night celebrations. Unfortunately, “Old Tippecanoe” as he was affectionately nicknamed for his exploits in the Indian War, caught Pneumonia and died within a month.
Harrison’s speech is a cautionary tale that exposes a sacred rule that could mean the life or death of your performance: keep it concise. No one wants to hear a two-hour speech—especially in this day and age. No one has time. And, frankly no one has anything important enough to say that could possibly take that long … even you. My sixth grade history teacher used to say, “a speech should be like a mini-skirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.” He’d probably be fired for using that analogy today, but it has always stuck with me. (More on memorable quotes later.)
Be Self-Effacing, Not Self-Loathing.
Everyone likes a speech that is reflective and honest, and one way to set the stage is by using tactful self-effacement. Sharing vulnerability can personalize a presentation, engage an audience, and paradoxically convey confidence. That said there is a fine line between self-effacement and self-loathing, and unfortunately for Franklin Pierce, our 14th president, he stumbled over that line.
On Friday, March 4, 1853, Pierce began his speech:
“It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.”
This confessional takes humility to a new level and is problematic given that it is being delivered to a country that just elected him because of their confidence in his leadership. Perhaps it is better suited for a journal entry than an inaugural address, one purpose of which is to reinforce the confidence bestowed upon a newly elected president.
In Pierce’s defense, he was following a long-standing inaugural tradition of bowing oneself to the tasks ahead, but did so to an uncomfortable level. Almost every president prior to Pierce had expressed concern and anxiety about his new gig, starting with the first line of the first inaugural address by George Washington on April 30, 1789:
“Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that which the notification was transmitted by your order…”
And James Monroe stated in his first inaugural address in 1827:
“Conscious of my own deficiency, I cannot enter on these duties without great anxiety for the result.”
However, no one until Pierce stepped quite so far over the line from humility to humiliating. Be willing to expose yourself, but be mindful of the degree to which you do so.
Keep It Real.
Many historians agree that James Buchanan, our 15th president, was one of the worst in American history, and when you read his speech there are hints as to why he became labeled “clueless.” Buchanan’s term ran from 1857 to 1861, when the issues of slavery and secession were reaching a boiling point. While Buchanan rejected slavery as an indefensible evil, he refused to challenge the constitutional establishment, even supporting the Dred Scott decision during his speech. More damaging to his legacy was his unwillingness to challenge the states that were threatening secession. What is striking about his inauguration speech is how he tries to deny and diminish the severity of the impending conflicts by peppering it with words like “simple” or “happy.”