This coming Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as America’s 45th president. The story behind the word inaugurate is an intriguing one. It literally means “to take omens from the flight of birds.” In ancient Rome, augurs would predict the outcome of an enterprise by the way the birds were flying. These soothsayer-magicians would tell a general whether or not to march or to do battle by the formations of the birds on the wing. They might even catch one and cut it open to observe its entrails for omens.
Nowadays, presidential candidates use their inauguration speeches to take flight on an updraft of words, rather than birds — and they often spill their guts for all to see. It all began with George Washington, whose first inaugural address indicated that he was not a happy camper about becoming the first president of the United States: “I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years.”
The shortest inauguration speech of all American presidents, only 133 words, was Washington’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1793. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural was the second shortest.
The longest inauguration address, delivered by our ninth president, William Henry Harrison on March 4, 1841, contained 8,445 words.
Washington’s speech lasted about two minutes; Harrison’s speech took about an hour and 45 minutes to deliver.
The fact that the longest speech preceded the shortest presidential term in American history was no coincidence. Harrison declaimed his message on the east portico of the Capitol outdoors on what was then the coldest Inauguration Day ever. After his address, Harrison attended a round of receptions in his damp clothing and caught a cold that developed into pneumonia, from which he died in the White House on April 4, 1841, a scant 30 days after he had been sworn in. As a result, Harrison’s lack of brevity and the brevity of his executive longevity are the only enduring marks left on his presidential legacy.
Despite an inclination for presidents to bloviate, at least two of our chief executives have praised the value of speaking briefly and to the point:
- A Cabinet member once complimented Woodrow Wilson on his short speeches and asked him how long it took him to prepare them. “It depends,” Wilson told him. “If I am to speak for 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation; if 15 minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
- Franklin Roosevelt, one of the finest orators to be president, had this advice about the art of public speaking: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
The words that everyone waits to hear from their new leader are: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
After listening to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, Richard Nixon, whom Kennedy had narrowly defeated in the presidential election, remarked to Ted Sorensen, a Kennedy aide, “I wish I had said some of those things.” “What part?” Sorensen wanted to know. “The part about ‘ask not what your country can do for you’?” “No,” said Nixon. “The part that starts, ‘I do solemnly swear’.”
Here are what I believe to be the three most enduring statements ever spoken during an inaugural address. Identify each president.
- With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
- First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
- And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
1, Abraham Lincoln 2. Franklin Roosevelt 3. John F. Kennedy