Renewal of Hope
Every four years I go back and review old Presidential Inaugural speeches. Very few are good. The surprising thing is how much they all sound alike. America always seems to be in the midst of some crisis or another, or in desperate need of a renewal of spirit. More often than we wish we have citizens fighting a war in some faraway place. The fact of the matter is that people always do feel like they live in times of crisis. That’s why every four years someone tells you that “this is the most important election in our lifetime.” As I have said once before, it is a sad commentary that we live in a country that finds itself in such dire straits every four years, just as regular as clockwork.
When all is said and done, there are really only four Inaugural speeches I like. The best one, also one of the best two speeches in American history, is Lincoln’s second. The second best one was also Lincoln’s of four years before. It is close between third and fourth although I give third place to Jefferson’s first innagural because he was the poet who crafted it himself. Fourth was Kennedy’s. It is as good as Jefferson’s, but Kennedy had a poet on retainer named Ted Sorenson, so I give Jefferson the edge.
I watched the entire 1960 inauguration of Kennedy. It was a fascinating affair. On the podium were the four men who served as President from 1952-1974, Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Most people at the time would have seriously doubted that Nixon or Johnson would have made the presidency. Kennedy’s death meant that men who had been passed over got a second chance. A review of the Johnson and Nixon administration’s shows to some extent why they were passed over. They were both fatally flawed men. Kennedy was too, but he caught a break and died early, so history remains on his side.
But my greatest memory of the Kennedy inauguration was Robert Frost. I personally believe that Frost was the greatest American writer ever to speak at an inaugural, sorry Abe. I was quite young at the time and so had no idea just how amazing it was to have Frost speaking there. He was ancient by this time. He hobbled to the podium in the freezing weather. The sun off the snow was so bright that he could not read his poem off of the white paper. I recall Kennedy trying to shield the glare for him with his hat (at least I think that I recall that) but nothing helped. Frost, although he was old, was nimble, he recited a poem he had written over twenty years before. I can’t recall the name of the poem, although I have read it since then. It is really not one of his best efforts, but people feel that they have to pull out their patriotic stuff on these occasions. It had been written in World War II and was sort of a sea to shining sea kind of thing. Still, there have only been four poets at American Inaugurals, and while the others were brilliant, none could match Frost. Kennedy was terrified that Frost was going to come up with something so good that no one would remember his speech that day. I can understand his worry, and his vanity, but it did not work out that way. Sorenson did him proud.
I expect that President Obama read Lincoln, Kennedy, Jefferson and probably FDR as he sat at his laptop putting his speech together. Those are good places to start, and Obama is the best pure orator the White House has had since Kennedy. I imagine that, like Sorenson/Kennedy he will do himself, and us, very proud. I am looking forward to it. A Presidential Inauguration is the same old show every four years, but, then again, so is Christmas, and I would not miss Christmas for anything.
author's note: This blog originally referred to Jefferson's first "innagural" as Jefferson's first "unnatural".This was a spell check correction to one of my many different spellings of the word innaugural, this one so bad that the correct spelling of the word was apparently not even the spell check's first choice for correction.I am indebted to my long time friend Gary Marfin for ridiculing this error to the point of making me edit the blog.Gary has been picking up after me for years, with only mixed results.