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Forget the Past

What should Obama crib from previous inaugural speeches?

Since John Kennedy shared the inaugural stage with Robert Frost and fretted in advance that he would be outshone by the 86-year-old poet--only to uncork a classic of the genre--America has witnessed a series of cream-puff inaugural addresses oozing with patriotic banalities. There is nothing to be gleaned from the collective inaugural words of presidents 36 through 43, except for lessons in how not to do the deed. Generations of school children are sure to be inspired by such oratorical pearls as this one from Bill Clinton in 1997: “Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution.”

The good news for this Tuesday’s speech is that Barack Obama is the first incoming president born after John Kennedy declared, on a snow-draped inaugural Friday in 1961, “Ask not what you can do for your country … ”. The inaugural memories of Jon Favreau, Obama’s precocious speechwriter, date back to his fifth-grade years watching Bill Clinton in 1993. As a result, neither Obama nor his 27-year-old amanuensis have ever listened to a transcendent inaugural address on live television, and can therefore rely more on their own instincts than on an existing blueprint.

Still, the chance exists that Obama’s speech will slip into the presidential commonplace. Favreau ominously admitted to The Boston Globe that he’s been studying up on many previous inaugural addresses. So, although it’s presumptuous and far too late to offer speechwriting advice with little more than 24 hours before Obama places his left hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, in this Time of Hopefulness, let me express my driving dreams about the inaugural address--especially all the lines that I pray we will not hear.

While Ted Sorensen hovers in the background as a guiding spirit for Obama speechwriters, let the word go forth to a new generation that it is time to retire the great phrases that he wrote for JFK nearly half a century ago. No more “torches passed,” no more “bearing any burden.” All these tropes have turned to tripe with constant emulation, so they have the effect of watching Casablanca for the 13th time and yawning when they play “La Marseillaise.”

At a time of economic crisis, another thing we have to fear (alas, not the only thing) is that Obama will lean too heavily on Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Beyond its warning about “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”--which was a direct reference to bank runs--FDR’s speech stands out for its chilling honesty. “A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence and an equally great number toil with little return,” Roosevelt starkly declared in words that boomed from radios across the nation. “Only a foolish optimist could deny the dark realities of the moment.”

But the national mood as Obama takes office is far different than it was on March 4, 1933--a time when America had been mired in the Depression for more than three years, and no one needed to be convinced about the persistence of bread lines and hobo jungles. Today, in contrast, the nation is still reeling from the suddenness of the bankruptcies and the trillions of investment and retirement dollars that whooshed down the drain last autumn. On Capitol Hill, Obama faces skepticism from both Republicans and politically skittish Democrats that another trillion dollars is needed to rescue the nation from a replay of Japan’s lost decade of economic stagnation. Unlike FDR, Obama needs to underscore the fear (this is the Big Kahuna of economic downturns) while also offering balm in the same speech.

In composing the inaugural address, Obama undoubtedly has heard the siren song of Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 ode to national unity: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” But does America really need another moist homily about working across the aisle? Bipartisanship is best expressed by actions (such as Obama’s calls to the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and the dinner at Chez George Will) rather than words. It is telling that the two most divisive presidents in modern times (one impeached and the other impaled) came into office promising a return to common ground. “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another,” Richard “Bring Us Together” Nixon declared in his 1969 inaugural address. And George W. Bush used “civility” four times in his 2001 speech, promising, without apparent irony, “to advance my convictions with civility.”

Every new president feels the need to punctuate his inaugural address with a paean to American exceptionalism. But in this case understatement is the most powerful form of communication. Just hearing the new president say, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear …” will tell the world all it needs to know about America’s historic journey from slavery to the inauguration of its 44th president.

What I am hoping for Tuesday in Obama’s inaugural is a “new beginning.” (Whoops, that was a signature line from Jimmy Carter’s 1977 address). The incoming president needs a new birth of rhetorical freedom, a fresh set of metaphors and imagery to describe the crippled economy, the two corrosive wars, and the chaotic global situation that he has been bequeathed. As we near the end of a decade that fittingly could be called the Anxious Aughts (from the September 11 attacks to September 2008’s Wall Street Wipeout), we still lack uplifting presidential language (certainly not George W. Bush’s strength) to understand our ordeal.

For all the America-first solipsism of the inaugural television commentary, Obama will also be speaking to a vast global audience, quite likely the largest in presidential history. With the presence of a glowering Dick Cheney on the inaugural stand, it would be stirring if Obama could find a way to tell the world how much has changed with a single democratic election. The return of the rule of law, civilized norms, and the values embedded in the Geneva Convention should not go unmentioned. If ever there were a speech that signals the end of a “long national nightmare,” it is Obama’s oration as he stands on the East Front of the Capitol and looks out at the millions on the Mall.

More than any president since Lincoln, Obama owes his power to the power of his words. On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in a president who has the capacity to give voice to what it means to live in the 21st century. And to do that, Obama simply has to loosen the strangler’s grip of prior presidential oratory. Let us begin anew Tuesday with a speech that sounds like Barack Obama, not Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Kennedy.

Walter Shapiro, who just completed covering his eighth presidential campaign, is a former White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. He did not work on the 1977 Inaugural Address.

By Walter Shapiro