On the eve of every inaugural address, there is an inevitable accounting of the great speeches. Lincoln’s second, FDR’s first, JFK’s only. Most other inaugural addresses of the modern age feel like knockoffs -- genuine reproductions.
People will remember the day, for sure. They’ll remember they were there. They’ll remember the camaraderie and the hope and the patriotic fellowship. Like most everyone who visits Washington, they’ll feel that they somehow touched the river of history. But the words? Forget about them. (And they will.)
Which is why I’ve come to believe that the most memorable inaugural address would be one that doesn’t sound like an inaugural address. This suggestion comes too late to do much good for today’s happenings, I know. By now, the white-columned rhetoric with inversions and allusions and mounting repetitions has probably been loaded into the teleprompter and printed out in 24-point type on thick presidential paper. The words will issue forth from the president’s mouth aimed at the heavens above the Mall. Then they will come tumbling to the ground, landing in a soft, indistinct pile somewhere around the base of the Washington Monument.
How much better to craft something granular, programmatic. Almost a State of the Union -- but short. It certainly suits the moment -- one when Americans are avidly hoping for detailed structural reform on specific issues. Bill Clinton famously declared that the era of big government was over. Can’t the era of big rhetoric be over, too?
Some will say -- there’s often an oppositional “some” in these speeches -- that this is what the State of the Union is for. To them, I say: We’ll survive. It’s not as if Americans, after the campaign of 2012, are strangers to repetition.
So let us hope one day for an inaugural address with no “New Anythings.” No dawns or mornings, frontiers or panoramas -- words I was certainly guilty of advancing in my days as a presidential speechwriter. I just want a plan for needed repairs. Could it be that the poem we most want to hear needs to come to us in prose? Maybe the cadence of our time is specificity.
(David Shipley is executive editor of Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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