For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.” [Update: Other images suggest it could have been VP Lyndon Johnson who was offering Frost the hat. I didn’t really notice at the time; whoever it was, the lasting image was of Frost’s struggling with his script and then beginning to recite.]
That moment was apart from Kennedy’s own speech, with “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And “let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Hearing lines like these and others in the same speech—now so familiar, at the time falling fresh on the world’s ears—left even an 11-year-old aware that something worth focusing on was underway. Since then I have wondered what it would have been like to hear, for the first time, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from FDR, or “mystic chords of memory” or “better angels of our nature” or other instantly immortal phrases from Lincoln. Would you have known, as soon as you heard them, that these were words for the ages?
In person, outdoors in what was usually the bitter cold of late-January D.C., I heard Carter’s only inaugural address in 1977, then both of Ronald Reagan’s, and every one that followed except the elder George Bush’s in 1989, when we were living in Japan. (I came back from China to hear Obama’s 20 years later.)
I can remember scenes from nearly all of these events, and lines from a few. But from all of them without exception, despite the obvious differences in policies and public-personalities among presidents number 39 through 44 (Carter through Obama), I remember the sense of specialness. Of earnestness. Of hope for a new start. Of sobered awareness of both the new possibilities and the new obligations that come with this uniquely powerful office.
And both for the good of civic society and as a shrewd political strategy, each of these presidents I heard began with at least some grace note to the millions of voters who had opposed him or lay outside his natural base. The boilerplate way of making this point, as David Frum has discussed, is emphasis on the “peaceful transfer of power.” Kennedy’s inaugural address began on just this note: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change.”
But you can read nearly any of the first 57 inaugural addresses, despite their obvious differences in length and form and eloquence, and find some form of these notes: sobriety, humility, conciliation, respect, and an opening to the millions of Americans who wished the other side had won. This is so even with addresses, like Ronald Reagan’s first, that offered strong critiques of past policies and laid out ambitious legislative plans. Reagan talked about burdensome taxes and regulations but built toward this closing note:
Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man, George Washington, father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then, beyond the Reflecting Pool, the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery, with its row upon row of simple white markers bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.
More than 150 years before that, Andrew Jackson, to whom Donald Trump’s advisors are likening his pugnacious temperament and tone, ended his first address this way:
A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors, and with veneration to the lights that flow from the mind that founded and the mind that reformed our system.
The same diffidence induces me to hope for instruction and aid from the coordinate branches of the Government, and for the indulgence and support of my fellow-citizens generally.
And a firm reliance on the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy, and has since upheld our liberties in various vicissitudes, encourages me to offer up my ardent supplications that He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction.
And while I’m at it, why not a look at the incredible ending of Lincoln’s first inaugural, on the eve of America’s most destructive war:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. 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.
As a stylistic matter, only a few inaugural addresses succeed in coining memorable phrases. Lincoln stands alone in this regard, followed by FDR and Kennedy. But most modern presidents at least strive for some degree of eloquence. It’s like getting dressed nicely for a religious service or graduation. Every president has made points in his inaugural address like those in the campaign speeches that won him the office; but all of them have aspired to something loftier than the standard stump speech, something special, something appropriate to their historic new role.
All of this applies to the first 57 inaugural addresses, from George Washington’s in 1789 to Barack Obama’s in 2013. Number 58, which I watched today from the same California town (Redlands) where I saw Number 44 (Kennedy’s), was different.
Its content was virtually identical to Trump’s campaign-rally speeches: just as long on anger and dystopia, just as short on specifics of policy. When the language differed from that of the campaign speeches, it was generally by being even blunter and more negative. Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This speech was base-only. If you were already for him, you may feel all the better. But if you weren’t, he gave you nothing new to work with. By my reckoning, Trump has sounded the generous beyond-the-base note exactly twice. One was in the wee hours of election night itself, when he actually sounded humbled and said he would govern with the whole country in mind. The other was just now, at the Congressional luncheon after his swearing in, when he called on Hillary Clinton for respect and praise, as he had not done in his speech.
[Update: My friend and one-time fellow Carter-era speechwriter, Walter Shapiro, wrote some imagined high-road and low-road versions of Trump’s speech yesterday, in RollCall, with examples of how Trump could have re-presented himself to the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Walter’s article made me think of other conciliatory notes it would have cost Trump absolutely nothing to strike. For instance, he could have said at some point: “My loyalty and thanks will always be to the tens of millions of people around the country who made the dream of this day a reality. I will think of you in every decision I make, through every moment I hold this office. But I am also aware that tens of millions of patriotic Americans worked just as hard for a different result today. And I make this promise to you: I will listen, I will learn, I will be open-minded, and I will do everything in my power to earn your trust and support.”]
In my recollections of past inaugurals, this was also uniquely dark-toned. Of course many presidents have taken office amid crises, and by definition almost any newcomer has a bill of indictment about the status quo, which many of them have laid out. But by recent standards this was extremely bleak: the Washington Post’s graphics team put out a fascinating item listing the words from Trump’s speech that had appeared in no previous inaugural. They include: carnage, disrepair, rusted, stealing, ripped, tombstones, trapped.
All this of course is directly drawn from Trump’s “what do they/we have to lose?” campaign. Two points about its use in this address:
First, it describes a reality that some but not most Americans perceive. As everyone who’s written about the economy in this Second Gilded Age, including me, has noted, far too many people are displaced, left behind, shortchanged, and dead-ended by the effects of technology and finance. That’s the human and economic challenge of this economic era, and it’s especially true for older people, less educated people, and those in some majority-white Appalachian and Rust Belt-locales where businesses have been closing rather than opening.
But for most Americans, the past few years have represented economic progress rather than decline. (Employment; recently median-wage levels; inflation; financials; energy-production; manufacturing; trend in deficits; emissions; etc.) I’ll save the full “some-vs-most” arguments for another day but will cite these two illustrations: the strong popular-vote majority for what was essentially a continuation of current economic policies; and the classic Politico headline from the GOP convention. It was “GOP Delegates Say Economy Is Terrible—Except Where They Live.” Again, there’s more to say about these figures. But as the dominant theme in the speech, it represents pure rallying the base rather than reaching beyond.
Second, from this inaugural address onward the “everything is terrible” rhetoric is decreasingly useful for an incumbent president whose own party controls both houses of Congress. OK, let’s say everything is terrible. Now the voters are watching to see what you can do about it.
What the speech did not have is any of the elements that marked its predecessors. An awareness of institutional continuity and resulting burdens. An ambition to make a fresh presentation to those in his own country and around the world who were not part of his original base. A demonstration that he himself has been changed by the consequences of his new role. A vision of hope and progress that extends beyond fealty to his own self.
The Trump team had said that his speech would have a “philosophical” tone. Perhaps in his eyes it did.
All right, enough set up. A few annotated passages:
Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans, and people of the world, thank you.
We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. [Final sentence of this graf is what we call a “future lies ahead” sentence. Usually it would set up a section beginning, “And the way we will determine it is XXXX.” In this case it trails off.]
We will face challenges. We will confront hardships, but we will get the job done. [Next sentence gives us the requisite “peaceful transfer of power” meme, the one on which Kennedy and some others started the speech. This speech could also have begun, “Every four years...” ] Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power. And we are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you. [Through the rest of the speech it will become clear that Trump is implicitly blasting the records and even reputations of the other living ex-presidents sitting behind him: Carter, Clinton, GW Bush, and now Obama. His compliment to Obama might seem crabbed, in that it refers only to the transition period and not the years before. It would also have been easy and cost nothing for him to recognize Obama’s historic significance as the first non-white president.
You could contrast that with Jimmy Carter’s beginning his inaugural speech by turning to Gerald Ford and thanking him for “healing the Nation” after the Watergate traumas, a line that I pushed to make the lead of that speech. And near the start of his first inaugural, Bill Clinton said about the man he had just defeated: “On behalf of our Nation, I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America. ” But other presidents have confined themselves to the same limited “thanks for the transition!” note, including Reagan in talking about Jimmy Carter.]
Today's ceremony however, has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people. [I understand that this theme was intended by the Steve Bannon team to set up the Trump as Today’s Andrew Jackson concept. In fact, it’s a very familiar theme for new presidents, most of whom arrive from outside D.C. I personally cranked out countless campaign speeches for Jimmy Carter on the “government as good as its people” “when the people rule” themes. Ronald Reagan did this too; also Clinton and Obama. ]
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital have reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. [Next few paragraphs are essentially Trump’s stump speech cut-and-pasted in.]
Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. [Again, part of Trump’s magic is that even while running as a billionaire who has avoided paying taxes, and even while introducing the richest-ever Cabinet and other finance-world appointees, he can still position himself for attacks on “the establishment.” I understand the Queens-vs-Manhattan aspect of this in Trump’s own life story. It’s just notable on the national scale.] Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
Because what truly matters is not what truly controls our government but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. [Once more, this sounds like something Andrew Jackson might have said. But so have dozens of other politicians, from George Wallace and Huey Long to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter and Bernie Sanders.]
The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. [CF one of FDR’s great campaign-era speeches, The Forgotten Man.] Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.
At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists.
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation [many US cities have rusted-out factories and abandoned mines, but most of those were abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s — again, a debate for another time], an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.
And the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage [“American carnage” has a good chance of being the line that is remembered from this speech] stops right here and stops right now.
We are one nation [OK, there is a note of inclusion in the speech!], and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. [For later discussion, the distancing that goes into use of “they,” which Trump typically does when talking about black Americans. As in “what the hell do they have to lose?”] We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.
The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans. [More inclusion]
For many decades, we have enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.
We have defended other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own [interesting that this is as close as he comes to the Build A Wall promise that was for many months the guaranteed largest applause line at his rallies], and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.
We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. [Worth contrasting this with Ronald Reagan’s indictment of economic stagnation in 1981. Reagan mainly blamed the problems on Americans themselves, for mistakenly choosing higher taxes and government spending. Moreover, Reagan spoke after five years of soaring inflation, unprecedented energy shocks, and first-in-decades losses of manufacturing jobs, as Japan and Korea rose in competitiveness. Trump is talking after five years of steady improvement on most economic measures, notwithstanding the many people who feel left out.]
But that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first. [The word “only,” delivered with emphasis, is one Trump added from the version of the release text that I saw. I needn’t belabor the way “America First” rings in 20th-century historical terms. I will say that for listeners anywhere beyond the U.S. borders, the added word “only” adds an edge that is quite different from the FDR->onward emphasis on U.S. international responsibilities.]
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. [I would have liked to have been sitting in some university economics department when Trump read this preceding sentence — or, the offices of any of America’s exporters, from Boeing through the Iowa corn farmers. I’m a very long-time skeptic of simplistic free-trade thinking. But usually the pro-protection case requires a little more polish than Trump gives it here. ] I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work,rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. [No need to belabor the point at the moment, but if you’ve been in Europe, Asia, Latin America, or most non-Russian venues in recent months, you understand the particular way in which the U.S. example is “shining” now.] We will shine for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. [This has not been 100% true through American history, to put it mildly. For instance, the U.S. troops that fought so bravely in World War II had fully opened their hearts to patriotism; they also operated in segregated units. It took conscious efforts by leaders from Harry Truman onward to remove that form of prejudice from patriotism.] The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.
When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.
There should be no fear. [Fill in your own comment.] We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God. [Forgive me, but my immediate response when hearing this was: Jesus Christ! As leader of a separation-of-church-and-state nation, you are expected to ask divine favor and hope that our acts conform to God’s will. But you don’t usually put it quite this baldly. For reference, neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln even used the word “God” in their first inaugural addresses. And Washington ended his speech this way: “I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign parent of the human race, in humble supplication that since he has been pleased to favour the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparellelled unanimity on a form of Government, for the security of their Union, and the advancement of their happiness; so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”]
Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long it is striving. [Good line!] We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action [Point one: this is exactly the (mis-guided) criticism Trump made of John Lewis over this past weekend. Point two: this is a standard by which Trump himself will inevitably be measured very soon.], constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over.
Now arrives the hour of action. [Good line too.] Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space [let’s hope this is the prelude to actually investing in, rather than cutting back on, space programs], to free the Earth from the miseries of disease and harness the energies, industries, and technologies of tomorrow.
A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It's time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. [This is as close as we get to a “mosaic of America” / e pluribus unum moment in the speech.] We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms. And we all salute the same great American flag.
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look at the same night sky. They fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. [If you’re a speech person, you’ll be thinking of Richard Nixon’s 1971 “lift of a driving dream” State of the Union speech about now.]
So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.
Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage, goodness, and love will forever guide us along the way.
Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again.
And yes, together, we will make America great again. [This is of course the way Trump’s standard campaign speeches always ended. I’m not aware of any precedent of using campaign rally slogans as the closing for the speech.]
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. [Before Ronald Reagan, presidential speeches virtually never ended with these words. Since Reagan, they virtually always end this way. You can look it up. Maybe after Trump, all speeches will have to end MAGA. And I can’t end without noting that a book I wrote during the U.S.-Japan trade-war era was called “More Like Us: Making America Great Again.” Sigh.]
The new era begins. The campaign gave us an accurate idea of the man who would take power. As I mentioned back on January 1, I’m leaving the next stage of covering Trump’s Washington to my Atlantic colleagues and their comrades in the press. Through the end of May, I’m away from Washington on a print-and-online leave from the magazine, to finish a book about how this era seems from the inland-America perspective. God bless us all.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.