- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

They could be the most important words President Obama will ever speak, fraught with gravitas, destiny and grandeur.

The world is waiting for his inauguration speech - and so are the history books.

“This promises to be the largest, most enthusiastic and most publicly celebrated inaugural since Andrew Jackson’s in 1829,” said Jim Hilty, a political historian at Temple University.

Our troubled times could call for some drama, he said.

“Obama’s inaugural speech must do more than provide an overview or set a theme for his administration. It must also inspire to action and offer hopes of better days. No small task,” Mr. Hilty said.

“Only three inaugural addresses - those of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy - historically resonate. Obama’s speech will be instantly held to those standards.”

Unprecedented media coverage of the address will be carried on countless TV, radio and Web-based networks. It will be magnified on the Jumbotron above Times Square. Grass-roots Democrats are planning hundreds of home-style viewing parties around the nation for those who want to be with friends and family when Mr. Obama steps forward on the dais.

Some industry analysts - and certainly a huge swath of major advertisers - expect Mr. Obama’s audience to top that of the Super Bowl. International coverage in 45 languages from the Voice of America alone could attract 134 million viewers.

This speech is a global moment, calling for a grand soliloquy - but not too grand. The best speeches have some neighborly underpinnings.

“They are not talking down to the people. They are not frightening the people. They are upbeat about this country and its many successes,” said Robert V. Remini, historian of the House of Representatives and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Some presidents want to tell you what they are going to do, like Lyndon Johnson. Some tell you what their philosophy of government is, which is a good way to start. Many of them try to envision the future - where am I going to take this country, where do I think it has to go?” Mr. Remini said.

“The one thing you want to be sure of is that this is what you want to say, not what your speechwriter wants,” he said.

Indeed, the inaugural address bears the distinct imprint of those who delivered it over the years. George Washington offered the shortest inaugural address - a mere 135 words - for his second term of office.

“Fellow citizens,” Washington intoned on a March day in 1793. “I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.”

In contrast, William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address, at 8,445 words on a frigid, wet day in 1841. He died one month later of pneumonia. While John Adams’ address only weighed in at 2,308 words, it did harbor the longest sentence, at 737 words.

Calvin Coolidge’s speech was the first broadcast on radio, in 1925; Herbert Hoover’s was the first on “talking newsreel,” in 1929; Harry Truman’s was the first on television, in 1949.

But such is the stuff of history - and culture.

The recent Address America contest sponsored by Philadelphia’s Constitution Center challenged Americans to dream up an inaugural address for Mr. Obama that was short. Very short, as in six words long.

The winning entry - determined by a panel of journalists and speechwriters - was “Divided by Fear, United in Hope.”

And while the inaugural speech itself may ultimately belong to history and a worldwide audience, it is also intensely personal. The address is the ideal way for presidents to apply their “personal stamp” on things, said John Dinan, associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University.

Typically, the canny president will attempt to unify the country, express continuity with America’s founding principles and chart a course for the future, he said.

Some were better at it than others, however

Mr. Dinan cited Thomas Jefferson, who told his audience, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Abraham Lincoln intoned, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” while Franklin Roosevelt told a worried nation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Baby boomers never quite got over Mr. Kennedy’s words (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) while conservatives still revere Ronald Reagan’s address, which included the phrase, “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

It is in the centuries-old “epideictic” tradition. Epideictic - as in “ceremonial,” said Thomas Hollihan, professor of communication at the University of Southern California.

“At its core, the purpose of an inaugural speech is primarily ceremonial, rather than political, although whenever an elected official or candidate speaks, one can assume the remarks will have political implications. The discourse should be like a political sermon,” Mr. Hollihan said.

Sermon or not, the inaugural address typically attracts a very alert audience.

“Ceremonial speeches come with a lot of attached expectations. An inaugural speech is very different from the annual State of the Union address. By its very nature, it’s a speech that celebrates the continuity of the compact between the people and the democratic process,” Mr. Hollihan said.

That basic premise suits Mr. Obama, who has long emphasized the role of every American in his campaign for change, reform and sense of occasion.

“This inauguration isn’t about me. It’s about all of us,” he said in the days before taking office.

Mr. Hollihan predicts the new president will steer clear of heavy policy messages and opt for something that seems to signals a veritable harmonic convergence.

“This is a moment of coming together, of recognizing the past and the future,” he said.

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