Thomas Jefferson made an impassioned plea for national unity. Abraham Lincoln bid a divided land to remember its frayed “bonds of affection.’’ Franklin Roosevelt urged a despairing nation to put aside its fear— “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.’’ John F. Kennedy spoke of “renewal as well as change.’’
Like President Trump, all four took the ancient oath of office in times of national challenge, capturing in their inaugural address rhetoric moments of historical inflection. Their first inaugural addresses — Kennedy did not get a chance to issue a second — set the tone and timbre for the remainder of their presidencies. All were trying to mark a shift in the national narrative, and only the long view of retrospect told whether their remarks met the moment.
The same will surely be true of Trump, who said Friday afternoon that his inauguration was “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.’’
The Trump inauguration represented a dramatic departure from the status quo, and so, too, did his inaugural address, which had the air of a primary-season rally and which bluntly criticized “a small group in our nation’s capital [that] has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost’’ — a broadside issued while he was within feet of that very small group.
“He had a measured tone that grew more intense as he spoke,’’ said Gladden J. Pippin, a Notre Dame political scientist. Daniel Béland, a political sociologist at the University of Saskatchewan, called it “the entire Trump campaign in a nutshell of a quarter-hour.’’
First inaugural addresses are a peculiar American art form, shaped by character (of the new presidents), by circumstance (of the new chief executive’s election), and by the confluence of great historical forces (of the economy or of national security). Though Kennedy is remembered best for two “Ask-not’’ sentences toward the end of his address, his very first sentence speaks of his inaugural as “symbolizing an end as well as a beginning.’’
Trump sought, in his own terse sentences and blunt words, to mark the end of what he declared a time of America getting pushed around, economically and on the world stage, and the start of something else: America first.
Inaugural addresses almost always hit high notes of rhetoric; Jefferson’s first inaugural spoke of “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political’’ and Lincoln summoned the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.’’ Trump’s speech spoke of his vow that, in an echo of a formidable phrase from 19th-century Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner that later was appropriated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no longer.’’
The 45th president took office amid one of the many contradictions that mark a complex country like the United States, for he was the beneficiary of an insurgency of the angry in a country where the president he replaced left by helicopter from Joint Base Andrews with an approval rating of 57 percent, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. Trump’s approval rating is well below that, and indeed his stunningly high unfavorable rate, as measured by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, is exactly three times higher than the 16 percent registered by Bill Clinton in the same poll in 1993.
On taking office, Trump was informal, almost casual; he is the only president to be inaugurated in an unbuttoned suit coat, a dramatic contrast with Kennedy, who wore the traditional morning coat in 1961. In his speech, the new president was forceful, even pugilistic. He expressed determination; he used the word “will” 39 times. And he sought to identify his steel-and-concrete pragmatism and two-fisted confidence — “we will get the job done” — with enduring American values.
In truth, that’s what classic inaugural addresses do. “The inaugural address should be a banner of intent and an expression of reassurance that those values we stand for and live by are not going to blow away in the wind,” said David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of John Adams and Henry Adams, in an interview.
And yet all inaugural addresses are expository essays about power and empowerment, prose ballads celebrating fresh beginnings, refreshed hopes — and the prospect of treading down fresh new paths ahead. Consider this riff: “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed,” a brand-new president said. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
That could have been part of Trump’s inaugural address, but it wasn’t. It appeared in the middle of Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, in 2009.
These addresses sometimes open with reassuring grace notes: gracious expressions by successors to predecessors that underline the great continuity of the presidency.
Jimmy Carter began this custom in 1977, when, in a reference to Gerald Ford’s presidency in the wake of the Richard Nixon Watergate tragedy, he said, “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Ronald Reagan continued the gesture, speaking of Carter’s “gracious cooperation” and saluting “your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.” Obama saluted George W. Bush’s “service to our nation” — the remarks drew the audience’s applause — and spoke of the 43rd president’s “generosity and cooperation.”
Trump thanked the Obamas for their “gracious aid throughout this tradition.” But the rest of the speech was so forceful a repudiation of the Obama years, the Obama record, the Obama outlook, the Obama style, and the Obama ethos, that the former president seemed to struggle to repress a cringe.
Presidents often come to office on the winds of popular movements; FDR did in 1933, so did Reagan in 1981, and so, too, did Trump last week. But those who don’t do so — Lincoln was a minority president and Kennedy entered office after a remarkably close popular vote — sometimes acknowledge that presidents have limitations, and that in the American system the public has an important voice beyond simply voting.
Separated by exactly 100 years, Lincoln and Kennedy used remarkably similar language to underline the shared responsibility of leadership that is an American tradition.
Lincoln: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
Kennedy: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
Trump, who ran well behind Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, expressed, in his own way, something broadly similar but to the nation’s citizenry: “Everyone is listening to you now. You joined me
Inaugural addresses, even more than set-piece speeches such as the State of the Union addresses that presidents deliver annually, are important markers in the lives of both country and chief executive.
For that reason, they often bear the rhetorical fingerprints of the new president and reflect the personalities of the president.
“Kennedy was sure of one thing: He did not want to go on and on,” said Andrew Z. Cohen, the Canadian scholar at work on a biography of Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy’s gifted speechwriter. “And Kennedy wanted to draw on history.”
Friday’s speech was pure Trump, more adamant than eloquent, with little evidence outside a few lines of speechwriters’ influence; it substituted puglism for the lyricism that most other presidents have sought to achieve. But the new president clearly did examine the inaugural addresses of two of his relatively recent predecessors: Ronald Reagan, whose speeches resonated with the public because of their simple, approachable language, and Kennedy, whose inaugural address is regarded as a classic of postwar American rhetoric.
Kennedy’s signature challenge — “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’’ — is a touchstone for nearly every inaugural address that followed, just as the first inaugural address of George Washington has been an enduring touchstone for all presidents.
Indeed, in so many ways — the two-term tradition, broken only once; the general refusal of presidents to testify on Capitol Hill, broken only in extremis by Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Gerald R. Ford — American political customs originated with George Washington and extend in a line that now includes Donald Trump.
Two general inaugural themes can be traced to Washington — the notion, as he said in 1789, that the American passage has “been distinguished by some token of providential agency’’ and a general expression of presidential modesty in the face of awesome challenges and responsibility. It was Washington who spoke in his first inaugural of “my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me.”
Trump, not known for modesty or for professions of incapacity, issued no such disclaimer, but nonetheless repeatedly argued that it was the public, not the Washington grandees gathered around him, who matter the most now.
A final element of memorable first inaugurals is especially appropriate for our fraught time: expressions of determination and confidence that a battered nation will fight on, militarily or spiritually, to conquer its enemies or its demons.
These appear even in the most unlikely corners of the American inaugural anthology. Herbert Hoover remarked that “[no] country is more loved by its people,” adding: “I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”
Four years later, in 1933, the hope extinguished in the Great Depression and fear rampant across the continent, Franklin Roosevelt told Americans, “In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” For his part, Trump said, “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear — 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 are protected by God.”
Trump also struck the national unity theme that Thomas Jefferson introduced when he said, in 1801, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” That brand of bipartisanship would seem incongruous in today’s Washington, where Republicans and Democrats rarely socialize and do not, like Ronald Reagan and the late House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. of Cambridge — rivals who had a common Irish heritage and an old duffer’s gift for gab — share a few off-hours laughs. Trump nonetheless cited Psalm 133 (“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”) and said, “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
Eight years ago, Obama, riding the crest of enormous domestic and international popularity, took a high road. He said Americans had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict of discord,’’ and added: “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
But the 44th president gave way to the 45th in a time marked by petty grievances and recrimination and, at least from Trump’s point of view, worn-out dogmas.
This age lacks the graciousness of earlier times, even eras of tumult. One long-forgotten anecdote from nearly a half-century ago, makes the point.
When Lyndon B. Johnson left office in 1969 amid enormous unpopularity and in a period of national upheaval, a second-term Republican congressman from Houston left the Capitol for Andrews Air Force Base to bid farewell to the battered Democratic president, whose approval ratings had dropped 34 points since he took office.
“I remember the warm glow Lyndon and I felt when we learned that a young Republican congressman, George Bush, had been in that assemblage, rather than at the inaugural activities of a president of his own party,’’ Lady Bird Johnson recalled later.
No such gesture occurred in inaugural festivities in our age of anger and resentment.
Before Bush’s airbase farewell to the Johnsons, Nixon, in his first inaugural address — delivered in a time of even greater distress and division than our own — spoke of “a long night of the American spirit’’ and he bid Americans to turn from their differences and to unite.
“In these difficult years,’’ the 37th president said, “America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.”
Today no one remembers nor cites those words, the Nixon legacy having been subsumed in scandal and his matchless disgrace.
It is a reminder to us, and perhaps to Nixon’s latest successor, that inaugural addresses are but the beginning of a presidency, and that, as Nixon said, “our destiny lies not in the stars but on earth itself, in our own hands, in our own hearts.’’David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.