- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Ask not why so few inaugural speeches resonate long after they are given.

History always will remember Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” And history probably has forgotten President Bush’s flowery declaration four short years ago that an “angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.”

When Mr. Bush delivers his second inauguration address on Jan. 20, he may be hard-pressed to say something truly for the ages. Not many presidents have, especially the second time around.

Among the 42 presidents, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are the acknowledged greats in inaugural oratory. In perilous times, their power of communication produced transcendent words that inspired not only those who heard them, but generations to come.

Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson once boiled down the essentials of an inauguration address to these qualities: lofty, nonpartisan, visionary, anchored by basic principles.

All presidents want to add a line or phrase to the canon that will be quoted for decades, he said, but “attempting to craft one for that purpose, or even to identify in advance which phrase is the most memorable, is rarely successful.”

Still, inaugural speeches follow a pattern of sorts, with common elements that date back to the first one.

Among them are:

• Humility. Men with oversized egos see fit to express humility in their inauguration speeches. Thomas Jefferson opened and closed his first inaugural speech with an elaborate account of his shortcomings and asked people to forgive all the mistakes he was about to make.

• Confidence. No matter how bad things are, an inaugural speech must promise better times are coming.

• The past. Reverence for the Founding Fathers is a prerequisite dating back almost to their time. Because all was fresh and new, George Washington had no forefathers to celebrate. Instead, he spoke of the American “experiment” and “the sacred fire of liberty.”

• Divine power. Most presidents invoke God with great relish, however devout or not they are. Washington spoke of the “parent of the human race” and the “great author of every public and private good” throughout his first inaugural. Theodore Roosevelt praised the “giver of good.”

In his new book, “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America,” historian Thurston Clarke attributed authorship of that address’ most memorable passages to Mr. Kennedy himself.

“Kennedy was more than the ‘principal architect’ of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too,” he wrote.

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