An Inaugural Speech In Six Words

Joe Torsella, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, talks about a contest the center has organized with Smith Magazine to help President-elect Barack Obama inspire America in six words. Authors of the judges' six favorite submissions will win a six-word memoir book from Smith Magazine and a year's membership to the National Constitution Center.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If brevity is the soul of wit, what is the soul of a terrific inaugural address? It could be brevity, but it usually isn't. Well, the National Constitution Center and Smith Magazine, an online home for storytelling, held a contest asking for six words to inspire a nation - six memorable words in a phrase that people would want to hear in the inaugural address. And now they've picked their six winners.

Joe Torsella, the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, joins us to tell us about them. And Joe, before we get to the grand prize winner, why don't you give us one of the runners-up that caught your eye?

Mr. JOE TORSELLA (President and CEO, National Constitution Center): One of the runners-up that I thought was nice and clever and it was, "These are testing times, study hard."

BLOCK: Study hard. And who's that from?

Mr. TORSELLA: That's from Dianne Titchnal(ph), who is one of our - we had about 3,000 entrants overall - although I will say we had this judged by a panel of celebrity judges, and they made some good choices. And I think I agree with the overall choice, but my all-time favorite did not make their list.

BLOCK: Oh, what was your all-time favorite?

Mr. TORSELLA: My all all-time favorite was, quote, "I shall put my BlackBerry aside."

BLOCK: (Laughing) I see.

Mr. TORSELLA: That might be the Secret Service's all-time favorite, too.

BLOCK: You know, Smith Magazine, your co-sponsor in this, has published a whole book before this, "Six-Word Memoirs." So clearly, they love the idea of brevity. What's in it for the Constitution Center?

Mr. TORSELLA: Well, our reason for being is to promote and foster a kind of civic engagement. And when we came to this notion with Smith, it seemed like a way to do it that would cause people to think in the process about what it is they want to hear the president say and that, in a six-word nutshell, is the essence of what this is all about.

BLOCK: Yeah, and looking at a bunch of the entries on your Web site, you know, inspirational can sort of start sounding like those posters you see advertised in the magazines you get on an airplane. And I mean, you can take that pretty far in the wrong direction.

Mr. TORSELLA: They, interestingly, fell into different kinds of categories. There were the inspirational ones, which clustered around the ideas of, kind of, hopefulness and unity and change. And then there was the whole humorous category.

BLOCK: Apart from the BlackBerry one, other funny ones that stick in your mind?

Mr. TORSELLA: Oh sure. "Fellow Americans, meet our new dog" was good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I think, maybe Malia or Sasha submitted that.

Mr. TORSELLA: Yeah, yeah. And then there was one that was both funny and clever and policy and that was, "Invest in civic energy, it's renewable."

BLOCK: Yeah, I like that one.

Mr. TORSELLA: So at the Constitution Center, we liked that a lot. And then there were the more classic ones that sounded more like a speechwriter had written them, and sounded like they could plausibly be in an inaugural address - which, by the way, there have been more than a few memorable six-word clauses. A lot of the ones that stick in our collective memory are, in fact, six words or pretty close to it - to bind up a nation's wounds or like a thousand points of light. The memorable bits of many inaugural speeches end up being those little chunks.

BLOCK: Well, but think about, you know, probably - maybe the most iconic inaugural line ever, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Seventeen words, wouldn't have made the cut.

Mr. TORSELLA: But still, it's the spirit of the thing.

BLOCK: Well, Joe, let's end the unbearable suspense here. Who is the grand prize winner?

Mr. TORSELLA: All right, drum roll, please. The grand prize winner is Donna Formica-Wilsey from Philadelphia. And her winning entry is, "Divided by fear, united in hope." I think it captures a theme of the campaign and the time, so I think it's pretty good.

BLOCK: Maybe a little bit of a play on "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Mr. TORSELLA: That's true, but let's not start pointing pleasures and fears.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: This is not the time or place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: What happens to these submissions? I mean, do they get - are you planning to send any on to the Obama speechwriters, just in case they need a little dose of inspiration?

Mr. TORSELLA: Well, as a matter of fact, we are. First of all, these will live forever, as things do these days, on our Web site. But we are also planning on sending the six finalists to the Obama transition team. They, though, have resisted every effort to acknowledge that they'll take receipt of them, so I can't make any promises there.

BLOCK: They're getting them whether they want them or not.

Mr. TORSELLA: They're getting them whether they want them or not. And the winners are getting a membership to the National Constitution Center. And the grand-prize winner is getting a leather-bound pocket Constitution - which, maybe more than any of these entries, testifies to the fact that a few words can save some very important things.

BLOCK: Well, Joe Torsella, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. TORSELLA: My pleasure.

BLOCK: It's Joe Torsella of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, co-sponsor of a contest to write six words for Barack Obama's inaugural address.

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