Inaugurations Worth Ovations
Six speechwriters explore their six favorite lines from inaugurations past
Today, we celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden. He will continue one of America’s greatest traditions: commencing his administration with a speech. To honor that oratory event, six speechwriters at West Wing Writers shared their thoughts on some favorite lines from previous inaugural addresses.
President Martin Van Buren, 1837
Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.
On the whole, inaugurations are solemn affairs — so much so that presidential historian Paul F. Boller Jr. claims that of the nation’s 58 inaugural addresses, there is not a single funny line to be found.
At least, not an intentionally funny line. Boller noted that President Martin Van Buren delivered an accidental knee-slapper during his 1837 inauguration when he declared, “the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth,” saying he contemplated “with grateful reverence that memorable event.”
The new president intended to say that he held reverence for the American Revolution. But with his awkward phrasing—not to mention an omitted Revolution qualifier—he made it sound like he held grateful reverence for his own memorable birth. The audience roared with laughter at his grammatical gaff; Van Buren, apparently unfazed, rambled on for another 3600 words.
It’s not exactly Comedy Central material—and yet, it’s the best inauguration joke in American history. That Van Buren set the bar so low makes it all the more disappointing that the 38 presidents since have been too chicken to clear it. Inaugurations may be serious occasions, but they’re also opportunities to share in collective joy. Given that presidents have elicited laughs during even the most somber funeral services and sobering State of the Union addresses, I have no doubt that even a moderately humorous one-liner would cast ripples of laughter through the National Mall.
Until then — some January 20th in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future, when one brave soul offers their adoring crowd a prank, pun, or punchline — MVB remains MVP.
President Ulysses S. Grant, 1869
The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any State. It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now, and I entertain the hope and express the desire that it may be by the ratification of the fifteenth article of amendment to the Constitution.
When President Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in, the country was so divided that his impeached predecessor, a racist who had shown sympathy to insurrectionists, refused to attend the inauguration. Sound familiar?
To meet the moment, Grant delivered a terse, plainspoken inaugural address. With only 1,135 words, he took each of the day’s most important issues and boiled his plan of action down to one or two sentences.
The result wasn’t beautiful — hardly the poetry of Lincoln. But his words were all the more powerful for their simplicity. After all, Grant had outlined a radically refreshing path forward. Most important, he had announced his support for the fifteenth amendment. Until Black people had the right to vote, he argued, there would be no peace.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965
“We have discovered that every child who learns, and every man who finds work, and every sick body that is made whole — like a candle added to an altar — brightens the hope of all the faithful.”
56 years ago to the day, in another season of violence and division, Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation in his slow, southern drawl. It was not his first inauguration — that one had taken place over a year prior, aboard Air Force One, minutes after President Kennedy was pronounced dead. Still, this inaugural address was a first in its own way — a first chance to set the public at ease, to set its sights on higher ground.
So Johnson turned his gaze to the Great Society. He described an America whose resounding commitment to justice, liberty, and union was not just aspirational but foundational. He called Americans to mend the old and still-throbbing wounds of white supremacy, bigotry, and structural racism. And perhaps most importantly, he previewed the concrete policy offerings of the Great Society program, promising an America where no child went hungry, no illness went untreated, no worker went broke. His remarks prove that an inaugural address is only as good as the policy it promotes.
Years of austerity and pervasive structural racism set us back; we have yet to reach the shining Great Society that LBJ so eloquently imagined. But if Biden matches lofty rhetoric with real, concrete improvements to peoples’ lives — policies that feed us, house us, heal us, relieve us — maybe we can inch a little closer.
President Richard Nixon, 1969
I do not offer a life of uninspiring ease. I do not call for a life of grim sacrifice. I ask you to join in a high adventure — one as rich as humanity itself, and as exciting as the times we live in.
Tricky Dick was a curious beast. Above all else, he was a rank opportunist, which made his ideology difficult to pin down. His rhetorical style was just as fluid. Coached by lizard-people like Roger Ailes, Nixon morphed into a rhetorical chameleon, able to seamlessly toggle between conspiracy nut, tough-on-crime hardliner, and empathetic everyman. That versatility is on full display in Nixon’s first inaugural address, in which he makes a truly unique call to action. I want to hate it, but I can’t. It’s good.
The entire point of speechmaking is to inspire collective action, and many American politicians are awful at this. Generations of belligerence and imperialism have poisoned the rhetorical well, and our leaders have grown incapable of framing challenges in non-militarized terms. We see this all the time: the war on terror; the war on drugs; the war on poverty; and most recently, the so-called “invisible enemy” that is coronavirus.
No doubt, calls to action should be visceral. The most effective ones appeal to base human impulses. War rhetoric is bankrupt, but it does evoke urgency, sacrifice, and the instinct to fight for our lives. Labor organizers and movement leaders, on the other hand, target our instinct to care for one another. In this speech, Nixon takes a fresh approach: he channels mankind’s innate desire to explore the unknown. His invocation of adventure comes at nobody’s expense, encourages cooperation, appeals to a universal sensibility, and turns uncertainty into promise. Though I’d like to never think about Nixon again, I’d like to see more of this.
President Jimmy Carter, 1977
“Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our Nation, for we know that if we despise our own government we have no future. We recall in special times when we have stood briefly, but magnificently, united. In those times no prize was beyond our grasp.”
President Carter was given a task which may ring familiar in 2021: maintaining a hopeful outlook while acknowledging the dark political era that had immediately preceded. With Watergate fresh in the minds of the American people, a purely optimistic perspective might have come off as naive — but dwelling too long on controversy could have been needlessly dire. Carter strikes the balance by addressing and dismissing any concerns about trust in government with a single phrase: “if we despise our government we have no future.” He puts the onus on the American people to give his administration a chance to earn back their good faith. And then, he calls for unity — not for its own sake, but as a prerequisite to reach the next great national achievement. Not long after, Ronald Reagan showed up and tore Carter’s solar panels off the White House.
Secretary Hillary Clinton, 2017
“I’m here today to honor our democracy & its enduring values. I will never stop believing in our country & its future.”
Hillary Clinton was not — alas — the speaker on Inauguration Day, 2017. And yet, she made a powerful statement without uttering a word.
Her presence on the platform before the Capitol, standing tall in a resplendent white suit, was for me, the most enduring message of the day. A message of strength, integrity, courage, and deep love for this country. A message to all who recognized the symbolism of suffragist white. If Hillary Clinton could summon the resilience to press forward, so could we. And the following day, at Women’s Marches nationwide, 4-million strong, we did.
She had not wanted to attend the ceremony, as she admitted in later years. Listening to Donald Trump’s remarks had been “painful,” disappointing, and sad. But as she Tweeted on January 20, 2017, “I’m here today to honor our democracy & its enduring values. I will never stop believing in our country & its future.”
And four years later, as we inaugurate not just Joe Biden but Kamala Harris, the first female, Black, and South Asian vice president in our history, I am grateful to Hillary Clinton — and Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Sonia Sotomayor, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Alicia Garza, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, April Ryan, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, Sally Yates, and countless other women whose names we know and whose names we don’t, for belief that never stopped and for the future we can build.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.