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Inauguration address may sometimes land gifted speaker in history books


When Donald Trump gives his inaugural address tomorrow, expect our 45th president to try to soothe some tensions after a particularly contentious campaign and tumultuous transition.

While his speech will be closely watched by persons who may remain skeptical of his agenda, President-elect Trump is expected to call for national unity, a theme which is familiar ground for new commanders in chief. From Abraham Lincoln’s promise of  “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” Franklin Roosevelt’s reminder that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and John F. Kennedy’s proposition of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” history remembers these speeches as expressions of healing and reassurance as the American tradition of peaceful transition of government continues intact.

White House insiders expect Trump to deliver a relatively short speech about the pressing issues facing the nation, while retaining ideas from his campaign such as “Make America Great” or “America First.” Trump will take the oath of office as one of the least popular chief executives out of the past seven men who have ascended to the office, according to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post which found only 40 percent of respondents approving of his campaign, transition, and cabinet nominations. In his expected call for national unity, Trump will follow a historic tradition going back to the days of Thomas Jefferson, on through the Civil War, Great Depression and World War II, the national discord of the 1960s, Watergate, 9/11, and current days of division.

“So many presidents are so forgettable,” says Robert Dallek, a noted presidential historian. He said it depends primarily on the man giving the speech. Some are bettor orators, others more charming, but it’s how they are remembered through history that solidifies their place in inauguration lore. “[Those] who deliver a forgettable speech don’t make much of a mark on the country’s memory. So I think their inaugurals reflect the quality of the men, and the historical reputation they leave us.”

Historians have long debated which has been the best inauguration speech, but they’ve generally coalesced around the following five as the most inspiring:

—No. 5 After triumphing against Aaron Burr in arguably the ugliest presidential campaign in history as charges ranging from bribery to miscegenation were hurled from both sides, Thomas Jefferson became our third president. It was the first time that the presidency had shifted from one political party (Federalist) to another (Democrat-Republican) and Jefferson’s enemies feared a radical ideology and a march to war. On March 4, 1801 (the 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20), Jefferson was in the Senate chamber and spoke of the “sacred principle” of majority rule and, on a personal note, a “sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents”:

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

—No. 4  While the American economy was beginning to improve in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt took his second oath of office as his New Deal programs met increased opposition from both Congress and the Supreme Court:

“Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned,” Roosevelt stated. “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” In noting that the nation had “come far from the days of stagnation and despair,” Roosevelt explained that “our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstance” while warning that “prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.”

—No. 3 With the Civil War over, Abraham Lincoln in 1865 took his second oath of office and spoke of the “mystic clouds of memory” which would “yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln didn’t deliver a victory speech. Instead, he urged a more sympathetic understanding of the nation’s alienated citizens in the South:

“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.”

—No. 2 When Roosevelt took office in 1933, one fourth of the nation’s workers were unemployed. Nearly half of the nation’s banks—more than 11,000 of the 24,000 in the country—had failed. The stock market had lost 75 percent of its value over the previous 36 months. He drew applause for the words “action” and “action now” and a standing ovation when he promised that if Congress would not act, he would request wartime executive powers to deal with the economic crisis on his own.

“This is a day of national consecration. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

—No. 1 John F. Kennedy in 1960 won a narrow victory over Vice President Richard Nixon.

Historians now trace the win to his performance in the first televised debate, although pollsters found Nixon to be winner on radio. Kennedy was told by speechwriter Ted Sorensen to “make it brief” and toss in occasional oratorical flourishes similar to Winston Churchill. Kennedy rejected that approach in opting for more simplicity and clarity. Kennedy gave what many historians believe was one of the finest world speeches of the day as he spoke of an “hour of maximum danger” (in reference to nuclear proliferation) and of the “torch [having] been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” Kennedy spoke of a “new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and weak secure and the peace preserved” before closing with the famous words:

“And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”