Dear President Obama:
Here’s an idea: Why don’t you write your own inaugural address? There is great precedent for this. George Washington certainly had the able assistance of James Madison in crafting the first inaugural address, but it was substantially his own work.
And one passage that Madison persuaded Washington to excise probably should have been kept. Washington said that God’s providence had not favored him with children and therefore he would not build his family’s reputation on the ruin of his country’s liberty.
It was a poignant and powerful statement. But it was left to researchers to find later.
Thomas Jefferson wrote his own inaugural addresses, both of them. He began his term of office after an especially bitter election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives. It took 36 ballots in the still-uncompleted Capitol for the congressmen to decide between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. At that 1801 inauguration, Jefferson said:
“Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. … We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Months after a bitter election campaign, and following weeks of partisan wrangling, wouldn’t words of “harmony” and “affection” from you be most welcome now?
Abraham Lincoln wrote all of his own speeches. And they are gems. Here’s what he said in 1861 in an appeal to reason, a sincere attempt to keep the country from tearing itself apart:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln wrote most of their own presidential addresses, as did Theodore Roosevelt. That may be part of the reason they are remembered on Mount Rushmore.
When you write out your thoughts, it helps you to develop your reasons and to communicate better those reasons to your countrymen. Lincoln trained himself in Euclidean geometry to give his thoughts a penetrating logical appeal, and thus the public found them persuasive.
Defending himself from charges that he was against democracy, Lincoln wrote:
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
Has there ever been a more thoughtful application of the Golden Rule to politics?
Four years ago, nearly 2 million Americans came to Washington to witness your first inauguration. It was without doubt a great moment in American history. We put to rest forever the slander that America is a racist country. Had that been true, you would not have advanced from the Illinois state Senate to the highest office in the land in just four years. But those millions of witnesses left the inaugural ceremony with no ringing words to carry in their minds, no lofty phrases to learn by heart.
Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved all Americans with their soaring rhetoric. They rooted their powerful words in the Word. You can do it, too. Give the speechwriters the week off, Mr. President. Write it yourself.