Americans love a good speech and particularly a great inaugural address. As Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration, the stakes are particularly high. He is competing with ghosts of eloquent presidents past along with his own high rhetorical standards. He is taking office as the country’s first black president, healing centuries of racism and dehumanization, during a staggering economic crisis, with America bogged down in two difficult wars, with Islamist terrorists still threatening, and amid serious concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons
Facing such troubles, it would seem that mere words can do little. But the magic of American democracy – and part of the alchemy of leadership – is that the right words and even the right gesture can make history. The inaugural address debuts the president’s Bully Pulpit, with hundreds of millions not just listening, but yearning for direction, especially today.
Back in April 30, 1789, a visibly nervous George Washington delivered the country’s first inaugural address. The great man’s humility – his awkward gestures and trembling hands -- moved the crowd. Many rejoiced that they had witnessed virtue personified, with individual and national greatness reinforcing one another.
Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive period. He made the moment with words not deeds. Jefferson’s patriotic pronouncement “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing, reassuring the losing Federalists that they remained Americans.
These two founders paved the way for a rich history of tone-setting inaugural moments. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried uniting the country by rhapsodizing about the “mystic chords of memory” binding Americans. Even though the effort failed and a bloody Civil War ensued, four years later, Lincoln welcomed back Southern rebels “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”