Trend In Second Inaugural Addresses: They're Not Very Good

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President Obama will deliver his second inaugural address from Monday. Baylor University Professor Martin Medhurst tells host Scott Simon that many second inaugural addresses don't live up to the promise of the first. But there is at least one shining exception.


On Monday, President Obama will join a select group of presidents who have delivered a second inaugural address...



PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: My fellow citizens...

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Members of the United States Congress.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Members of my family and friends.

PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER: We meet again, as upon a like moment four years ago.

SIMON: Those were Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower. Is there any common theme in second inaugural speeches?

MARTIN MEDHURST: The only trend I see is the trend that started very early and continues, and that is that most of them are just not very good speeches.

SIMON: Martin Medhurst is a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor, who is considered an expert on presidential speeches. He says that at least George Washington's second inaugural speech didn't make anyone stand outside very long: It ran just 135 words. We don't have any audio of that. Richard Nixon's second inaugural address in 1973 contained a fervent hope.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America's history.

SIMON: But they weren't for him. President Nixon resigned in 1974. Professor Medhurst says it's a challenge for presidents to lift and inspire the second time around.

MEDHURST: In a first inaugural, it's all new. There's a sense of rebirth. And after four years, you know, all of that has sort of worn off.

SIMON: There is, of course, the exception that may prove the rule.

MEDHURST: The greatest of all was Lincoln's second inaugural, which perhaps was the greatest speech of all, much less an inaugural address.

SIMON: And we do have Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying Lincoln in the current film - a saddened president, made wiser through the war, who is horrified by the huge suffering he has seen but now glimpses triumph and healing


DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as President Abraham Lincoln) And until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with a sword...

SIMON: On Monday, President Obama's voice will roll across the mall to the Lincoln Memorial, where these words are carved in stone...


DAY-LEWIS: (as President Abraham Lincoln) To do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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