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Speechwriters: After Bland First Inaugural, Second Is Tougher For Obama

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Speechwriters: After Bland First Inaugural, Second Is Tougher For Obama

Inauguration 2013

Speechwriters: After Bland First Inaugural, Second Is Tougher For Obama

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We are three days from the presidential inauguration, an event defined by sweeping imagery that includes the National Mall full of cheering Americans, a grandiose platform in front of the Capitol building, the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. And at the center of it all, a speech, President Obama's second inaugural address. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been talking to former White House speechwriters about the challenge of crafting a speech for this moment.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The last time Barack Obama gave an inaugural address, millions of joyous people tuned in around the world, ready to be inspired by a man who rose to prominence on the incredible power of his words. The president knew that the American economy was teetering on the brink of disaster. And four years later, the verdict on that address is pretty unanimous from former White House speechwriters of both parties.

MARY KATE CARY: I think most people would have a hard time quoting you a line back from it.

JEFF SHESOL: There really aren't very many lines in President Obama's first inaugural address that stood out even in the moment.

CARY: It just seems like there were a lot of platitudes.

JOHN MCCONNELL: You know, I had to go back and look at Obama's inaugural address to really remember lines that I had, at the time, paused over. It didn't have (unintelligible) idea. It didn't have a clear theme.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: There's the old adage, you only get once chance to make a first impression. And I think President Obama might hope that's not true.

SHAPIRO: That's George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mary Kate Cary, Clinton's speechwriter Jeff Shesol, George W. Bush speechwriter John McConnell and Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman. They all know firsthand that one of the toughest speeches to write for any president is also one of the most high-profile addresses he'll give. They generally agree that the closest thing President Obama had to a standout line four years ago was not even an original.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

SHAPIRO: The blandness of the president's first inaugural reminds Mary Kate Cary of the game speechwriters sometimes play, inspired by wine drinkers who cover a label and try to guess the grape by its taste.

CARY: They take a sip of the wine and they could say, that's a 2009 Pinot from Napa Valley, right. So I'll take a speech and put my hand over the top of the speech. And if I can reach the speech and say, this was Barack Obama, inaugural address 2009, Washington, D.C. then I know it's a well-written speech.

SHAPIRO: By that test the president fumbled on his first go round. And Clinton speechwriter Waldman says his challenge this time is even greater.

WALDMAN: First inaugurals often mark a change. They're easier to write and easier to give. It's harder to give a good second inaugural because, in fact, there's continuity.

SHAPIRO: People have been listening to this president talk for years. It's hard to come up with something new to say. And many of the crutches that speechwriters often turn to are off limits in an inaugural address. Jokes are no-no. Statistics don't belong there. Quotes by the likes of Mark Twain and Yogi Berra are out of place. Most importantly, says Clinton speechwriter Shesol, inaugural addresses should look relentlessly forward.

SHESOL: More than probably in any other speech a president will give, people want the vision. They want to know where we're headed and what it looks like when we get there.

SHAPIRO: Vision, yes, but policy, no. Save the laundry list for the State of the Union next month, says Bush speechwriter McConnell.

MCCONNELL: Look, President Obama is going to make more news in his next press conference than he's going to with his second inaugural address. It's just the nature of things.

SHAPIRO: So what does that leave? A very high bar, for one. All of these speechwriters agree that the key to cracking an inaugural address is to remember that this is the opposite of a campaign speech. It's the democratic equivalent of a coronation.

MCCONNELL: An inauguration is not a political event. It is an official event.

SHAPIRO: This is a moment when the country wants to feel unified, even if the country is divided by bitter partisanship. Clinton speechwriter Shesol says, on Monday, President Obama must acknowledge both realities.

SHESOL: He's got to be inclusive in his rhetoric and not divisive, and I'm sure he will. But he's also got to seem realistic and not naive. And that's a difficult balancing act to pull off.

SHAPIRO: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refused to preview Monday's address, but he said the president generally writes his speeches in longhand on a yellow pad, quote, "and I've seen some yellow pads filled with writing of late." Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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