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Tips for Obama’s inaugural address from former presidential speechwriters


January 20, 2009

Barack Obama’s oratorical skills have been compared to those of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But in advance of his inauguration today, a New York Times blog asked William Safire and three other former presidential speechwriters for their advice on how the president-elect should prepare his address.

William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon: Obama becomes the first black president of the United States on the day after the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and not far from the Lincoln Memorial, site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Safire hopes Obama’s address will handle these historic elements in a powerfully understated fashion. “The event speaks for itself, and the subtle way for this new president to note that he is the first of his race to achieve our highest office is to drop a couple of quotations from Lincoln and King…. Everybody in the world will get the point, and the relatively short, thematic speech will be long remembered.”

Jeff Shesol, a deputy chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton: Something about inaugural addresses tempts presidents and their speechwriters into rhetorical ruin, Shesol says. President Obama will give a great speech, but for his words to endure, he must strike the right balance between speaking to the moment and speaking to history. “The best inaugural speeches manage to do both,” Shesol says, “to represent a perfect union of the speaker, the message and the moment.”

Mary Kate Cary, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush: A primary rule of speechwriting is to make the most of your location, she says. Cary suggests that Barack Obama should point to the Lincoln Memorial, where 45 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” and that like King, he should challenge his audience to act. “He knows how to get people off the couch,” she says, “to vote, to give time and money, and now to act with the audacity of hope.”

Gordon Stewart, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter: Most presidential inaugural addresses consist of oratorical clumps arranged in no discernible order, Stewart says. The exceptions — from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln — were all occasioned by a genuine crisis, written for the moment, not for the ages, and built from inexorable lines of reasoning. “Mr. President-elect, define our threat starkly but soberly,” Stewart advises. “Set forth the actions we must take.” — Compiled by Greg Beaubien for Tactics and The Strategist Online



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