Historians have forever debated if great moments create great men, or if the opposite holds true. 


In a way, the same can be said for inaugural addresses.   As Barack Obama prepares to address the nation, will it be reminiscent of some of the classics – Lincoln’s two inaugurals, Franklin Roosevelt’s first, Kennedy, Reagan’s first – or go forgotten like so many of the others?


Certainly Obama has proven to be a great orator with an ear for language and a sense of the moment – something that can’t be said of every president – and faces an extraordinary challenge: leading the nation through its worst economic crisis in 70 years.   On the face of it, all the conditions exist for a speech for the ages. 


But great inaugurals – the transcendent classics – aren’t solely about memorable phrasing or recallable lines, though they play an important role; rather, they’re an amalgam of vision, rhetoric, history, and even ideology that address the challenge at hand and mark a demarcation from past policies – offer a new beginning, so to speak.


That was never truer than Lincoln’s first inaugural, which took place months after South Carolina had formally seceded from the union and just weeks before the opening shots of the Civil War.   It’s hard to imagine now – we almost take it for granted – but preserving the Union was not the overwhelming sentiment of the day.  Many Americans – including millions in the north – thought war should be avoided at all cost, even if it meant dissolution.  Lincoln had other ideas, however, and used his speech to invoke universal law to justify the “perpetual nation”, a concept that would have seemed alien even to the Founding Fathers:


“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”


It didn’t hurt that he closed with one of the great rhetorical flourishes, intoning that the “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


Rarely is the sequel the equal of the original, but in Lincoln’s case it was.  His second inaugural is widely regarded as the finest ever, and couldn’t stand in further contrast to his first.   He only needed 701 words (making it the third shortest in history) to embark the nation on a new path of healing:   “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”


No doubt Obama’s speechwriters will look back to Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural for inspiration – perhaps even guidance – given the similarity in circumstances.   It’s known for one of the classic lines in inaugural oratory – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – but it also broke rank with previous inaugural addresses in its level and detail of policy prescriptions, reading more like a state of the union address in that regard.  He spoke about job creation, stemming the tide of home foreclosures, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, stabilizing the price of commodities, reducing waste from government, and the need for action – now.   Sound familiar?


In many ways, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address remains the standard by which all other inaugurals are measured – and rightly so.  Arguably no other speech in presidential history so perfectly blended vision, phrasing, ambition and resolve with a flawless delivery to capture and transcend the national mood.    It was lofty – “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage”; aggressive – “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.  This much we pledge—and more”; inspirational – “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”; and defiant: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”  


During the primary, Barack Obama took some flack from the Clintons for acknowledging that Ronald Reagan had changed the trajectory of the nation, in part, because he was successful in communicating big ideas.   It may have been a political misstep to admit so, but Obama’s analysis was correct, and it began on day one for Reagan: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”


Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn to define the moment, inspire the nation, gird it for tough times ahead, and provide a roadmap to a better place.  He has a unique opportunity to join Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan in transcending his time with a speech for the ages.


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