Friday 13 December 2019

Brian Murphy: Hand on heart, Obama knows this speech must really count

Brian Murphy

Richard Nixon's advice to Barack Obama today would be keep it short.

In preparing for his swearing-in ceremony in 1969, Nixon read the inaugural speeches of each of his predecessors. His assessment was that "only the short ones are remembered".

Today, Barack Obama will make his second inaugural address as President of the United States of America. If Mr Obama has followed Mr Nixon's meticulous preparations, he will have had plenty of material to ponder.

Today's inaugural speech will be the 57th inaugural address. The first inauguration speech was delivered by George Washington on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall, New York.

This speech was actually drafted by a future president, James Madison, but it contains little hint of the objectives of the founding fathers for their fledgling nation. Instead, the speech documents Washington's sense of duty and his "conflict of emotions" upon being asked to serve as his country's First Citizen.

Since then, inaugural speeches have widely varied in their message, their merit and historical context.

Undoubtedly, the most quoted inaugural address was John F Kennedy's speech in 1961 which conveyed an impression of youth and vigour. Kennedy was the first president to take office who had been born in the 20th Century and his inauguration marked not just a changing of the guard, but a generational shift.

"Let the word go forth," he said "from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, 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 an ancient heritage."

Possibly even more eloquent is Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural speech, which is all the more remarkable given its historical backdrop of national strife and peril. Lincoln travelled to Washington for his 1861 inauguration in disguise such was the threat to his safety as America hovered on the brink of civil war.

This speech was a passionate appeal for peace, the preservation of the Union and for the politics of decency to prevail over a slide into armed conflict. In his concluding remarks, Lincoln said: "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."

Modern day speechwriters with a penchant for short, snappy sentences are unlikely to be influenced by the inaugural address of America's second president, John Adams. This almost indecipherable speech includes one sentence which is more than 700 words and is punctuated by an avalanche of semi-colons and supporting clauses.

Similarly, Mr Obama will not follow the lead of his predecessor, William Harrison, who spoke for over two hours with fatal consequences. Harrison's inaugural speech was delivered on a freezing cold day and the new president contracted pneumonia. He was dead within a month.

Mr Obama's strong sense of history will inform today's inaugural. Two icons of American history – Lincoln and Martin Luther King – will permeate the spirit of this inauguration. Mr Obama has already announced that he will take the oath of office while placing his hand not on a single bible, but on two bibles – one that belonged to Lincoln and the other to King.

This inauguration takes place on a federal holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. It also takes place in the year of the 50th anniversary of King's famous "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln memorial. Lincoln's heroism is currently very much in the public consciousness not just because of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie, but because this month marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves.

This is a confluence of events and anniversaries that speechwriters dream about.

Mr Obama is likely to mention his commitment to immigration reform, economic renewal, energy independence and, in light of recent tragic events, gun control.

He will be keen to seize the moment and deliver a speech that will stand the test of time.

From the moment he first took the oath of office, Barack Obama was running for re-election.

His second-term will be defined by legacy and his place in history.

Words matter.

Brian Murphy is a former speechwriter to two Taoisigh. He is completing a PhD in the School of History and Archives, UCD.

Irish Independent

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