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Lessons for Obama from reading inaugurals past [Video chat]

January 18, 2013|By Hector Tobar
  • Workers prepare the U.S. Capitol for the second inauguration of President Obama.
Workers prepare the U.S. Capitol for the second inauguration of President… (Jewel Samad )

Editor's note: Join Hector Tobar and book critic David L. Ulin on the Jacket Copy blog for a live video chat on the literary legacy of American inaugurations in general, and President Obama's 2013 inauguration in particular, on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Pacific.

An important speech usually begins as a writing project. And what separates a good inauguration speech from a great speech is, more often than not, a lot of writer's elbow grease. Speechwriting, to paraphrase your old English teacher, is speech rewriting.

That’s the lesson that comes to us from the books that have dissected the roots of our greatest American speeches.

Looking for some good, pre-inaugural reading? You can read “Ask Not,” by Thurston Clarke, to see how John F. Kennedy prepared for his inaugural speech in 1961, which is widely admired as the best of his truncated life. Ted Sorenson says in “Ask Not” that “no Kennedy speech ever underwent so many drafts.”

Somewhere, President Obama and his team more than likely have a near-finished draft of his second inaugural speech, to be delivered from the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21.

If he’s like most other of the 43 men who’ve gone before him, Obama is looking for a timeless quality in his remarks, that one idea or turn of phrase that will resonate in the America’s “mystic chords of memory.” (That’s from Lincoln’s first).

The consensus is that Obama pretty much whiffed his effort at a home run last time around: remember anything he said in his first inaugural? Michelle’s dress got better reviews. (For what it’s worth, Obama’s first inaugural, with its largely forgotten phrase “let us brave once more the icy currents,” is the final entry in “American Political Speeches,” part of Penguin’s new Civic Classics series.)

History shows that, like good art, a good speech often comes not just from hard work and revision—but also from taking the time to seek good counsel. Even a president, or a president-elect, needs a good editor.

In Lincoln’s “mystic chords” was his own riff in his first inaugural on a suggestion from his secretary of State designate, William H. Seward, as we learn in “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech,” by Ronald C. White Jr., a book which is actually about Lincoln’s second inaugural (more about that later).

When Lincoln delivered his first inaugural in 1861, seven Southern states had seceeded from the union. Lincoln’s first draft ended with “Shall it be peace, or a sword?” Seward suggested striking those words, and proposed two possible endings, including one long paragraph that began: “The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves…”

Lincoln liked that passage, but shortened and tweaked it to the smoother and sweeter sounding: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave…” He also modified Seward’s suggested “the guardian angel of the nation” to the resonant “the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln understood that in speaking, as in writing, less is often more. So did Kennedy, who had Sorensen count the words in each of the 20th century’s shortest inaugurals: Eisenhower’s second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second and both of Woodrow Wilson’s. He also instructed Sorensen to “add style and eloquence” and “short sentences and words,” Clarke writes in “Ask Not.”

Together, Kennedy and Sorensen tweaked and retweaked the famous “ask not” line again and again. Both men recognized that it could be the “master sentence” for which the speech would be remembered.

It was a rephrasing of an idea in many of JFK’s campaign speeches. And, like every great speech, it contained the germ of an idea the speaker believed in passionately: the nobility of public service.

“We do not campaign stressing what our country is going to do for us as a people,” Kennedy had said in a speech in September. “We stress what we can do for the country, all of us.”

In an early Sorensen draft, that became: “So ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” After a few more revisions, the final version Kennedy delivered combined the two sentences and added “my fellow Americans.”

The final draft came in at 1,364 words, among the shortest ever.

A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt in composing a speech either, nor is borrowing off limits.

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