Obama The First President To Mention Gay Rights In Inaugural Address

For analysis of President Obama's second inaugural speech, Robert Siegel speaks to former speechwriter Mary Kate Cary. She wrote for President George H.W. Bush and she's now a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to get some reaction now to President Obama's speech today from a speechwriter. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report, and also a political analyst for the NPR program TELL ME MORE. Welcome to the program.

MARY KATE CARY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, what do you think a president should strive for in his second inaugural? And did President Obama do it?

CARY: Well, the first rule of any speechwriter is to craft a speech that gets the listeners off the couch. Get them to donate their time, buy your product - whatever it is. President Obama's first inaugural ended with this very moving story about the soldiers in Valley Forge and George Washington reading this letter. And he says to the audience at the inaugural, you know, join me as we carry forth the light of freedom forever. And this one, he didn't have that moving story. To me, he didn't get that motivational get-off-the-couch-with-me moment. He actually ended it with a line about embracing our lasting birthright and answering the call of history. And I'm like, well, what does that mean?

It's interesting. Most inaugural addresses are not written the way people speak. And so you're at a bit of a disadvantage as a speechwriter because you can't use statistics and Yogi Berra quotes and all the things that we all love as speechwriters. And so it's a difficult job. I mean, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, so I hate to criticize.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about some moments that were pretty noteworthy in any case. In talking about equality, he mentioned three places where equality has been challenged and moved forward: Seneca Falls, meaning women's suffrage; Selma, civil rights; Stonewall, gays and lesbians...

CARY: Right.

SIEGEL: ...something we haven't heard before in an inaugural.

CARY: No. I think it's the first time ever. And what was smart to me is the way the president, in the next paragraph after that, couched it all in terms of the most evident of truths that we're all created equal. I think if you're going to make an argument - to social conservatives to support gay rights - that is the winning argument, and he was smart to use it.

SIEGEL: He had a pretty strong paragraph in support of doing something about climate change, which has been a controversial subject in Washington. What do you think?

CARY: I thought it was a little too far left. For most, I think people probably tuned it out a little. But the broader point about the climate change, along with some of the other issues that he ticked through, most of the stuff that he had on there that are big parts of the liberal agenda, he couched in terms of the Founding Fathers and our Constitution. That was an olive branch, I think, to the Tea Partiers, to the strict constructionists, you know, Justice Scalia sitting right there next to him.

I think that was smart to couch it in terms of the values that we hold as a nation going back to our founding. You know, I don't agree with everything in the liberal agenda, but I liked the arguments about American values.

SIEGEL: Speaking of which, we all know what the current state of bipartisan cooperation in Washington is, it's not very much.

CARY: Mm-mm.

SIEGEL: But when President Obama defended Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, he seemed to be saying those aren't just programs that I'm going to talk about in the State of the Union. They're not just pieces of legislation. These are part of the fabric of democracy, as I understand it.

CARY: Right. I think that was very wise because it allowed people to remind ourselves why we're trying to save Social Security and Medicare. And I think, hopefully, the right will use that same language as we go forward into the fight that I think is facing us on spending cuts.

SIEGEL: It occurred to me, as you said, that people don't speak in an inaugural address as they do normally.

CARY: Right.

SIEGEL: It would be impossible to do so. The president is standing up there with the Capitol behind them, with everybody who's anybody in Washington, seated around him, choirs, the Marine Band, and out in front of him hundreds of thousands of people loving him. Did he get the tone right for this occasion?

CARY: I think he did. The most noticeable thing to me was, you know, President Bush, 41, the first day we were in office, told us his mother had taught him not to use the word I. And so whenever we wrote speeches for him, if you had too many I's in there, he'd crossed them out and change them to we. He felt in a democracy, the president should use we. And I think the most used word probably in the speech was we. And that to me was a very good tone.

I wish he had a little more outreach to Republicans. You know, my boss, 41 again, said a new breeze is blowing. To my friends in the loyal opposition - and yes, I do mean friends and I do mean loyal - I offer you my hand. And something a little more specific like that in such divided times, I think, would've bought him a lot of goodwill, along with pointing out that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. I think that would've bought us a lot of goodwill too. But, yeah, he chose not to do that.

SIEGEL: Mary Kate Cary, thanks for talking with us.

CARY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News & World Report and also of the NPR program TELL ME MORE.

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