WASHINGTON -- 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." 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 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 43 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 of 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.
rhetorical devices. Speakers employ what they hope is artful repetition. FDR in his second inaugural repeated the phrase "I see," as in "I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day."
Teddy Roosevelt used alliteration, declaring "we shall not prove false to the memories of the men of the mighty past."
the past. Reverence for the Founding Fathers is a prerequisite dating back almost to their time. George Washington, who had no forefathers to celebrate, spoke instead 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.
hail fellows. From George Washington to George W. Bush, presidents have used one phrase more than any other to address the public directly in an inaugural speech: "Fellow citizens." FDR departed from the norm in his first inaugural, speaking to "My fellow Americans."
sagging sequels. With Lincoln's "malice toward none" speech as a sterling exception, second inaugurals rarely have had the punch of the first. Washington's 135-word address, in 1793, was the shortest ever, a minute's worth of talk.
lofty words. Phrases such as "a new breeze is blowing" -- from the first President Bush's speech -- are a dime a dozen. What separates word candy from solid gold is what keeps speechwriters up at night.
In his new book, "Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America," historian Thurston Clarke attributes authorship of that address's most memorable passages to JFK himself. "Kennedy was more than the 'principal architect' of his inaugural address; he was its stonecutter and mason, too."
Lincoln's first inaugural speech was lawyerly, getting right to the business of Southern grievances and how they might be addressed peacefully. Only at the end did he soar, speaking directly to the secessionists.
"We are not enemies, but friends," he said. "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."
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