How to Write an Inaugural Address

Michael Gerson helped craft the first and second inaugural addresses of President George W. Bush. Now a Washington Post columnist, he underscores in this interview the significance of inaugural addresses, how they came about in George W. Bush's administration, and what we might hear in President-elect Donald Trump's address. As the former chief White House speechwriter puts it, the point of an inaugural is for a president to express the best, most inspiring and unifying version of his core beliefs.There are speeches, and then there are speeches. An inaugural address seems to be in a class of its own. In Lincoln's case, his words ended up chiseled in stone at the Lincoln Monument. How does a president, or president-elect, even start tackling an address that could shape history?The inaugural address is the center stage of American public life. It is a place where rhetorical ambition is expected. It symbolizes the peaceful transfer of power -- something relatively rare in human history. It provides the public, Congress and members of a new president's own administration an indication of his tone and vision. It is intended to express the best, most inspiring, most unifying version of president's core beliefs. And that requires knowing your core beliefs. I read that you went back and studied all prior inaugural addresses before starting to work on President Bush's 2001 inaugural address. What did you learn from that experience? Would you recommend it for others who go through this process?It is a pretty tough slog in the early 19th century, before getting to Abraham Lincoln and the best speech of American history, his Second Inaugural Address. That speech is remarkable for telling a nation on the verge of a military victory that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives that it was partially responsible for the slaughter; that its massive suffering represented divine justice.Strictly speaking, it is only necessary to read the greatest hits among inaugurals to get a general feel. But it would be a mistake to miss some less celebrated but worthy efforts such as Richard Nixon in 1968: "America has suffered from a fever of words... we cannot learn from each other until we stop shouting at one another." This theme of national unity is a consistent thread throughout inaugural history. Having worked on two inaugural addresses, and read so many, do they by and large set the stage for the next four years? Or, are they mostly forgotten?Some of the speeches are undeniably forgettable. But even those are never really forgotten. They are some of the most revealing documents of presidential history, when a chief executive tries to put his ideals and agenda into words. Students of the presidency will read those speeches to help understand a president's self-conception and the political atmosphere of his time.What was the writing and editing process like with President Bush on these addresses? And what did you all learn from the first address that shaped the second one in 2005?President Bush's first inaugural address was intended to be a speech of national unity and healing. He had just won a difficult election in which he lost the popular vote (which certainly sounds familiar). It was a moment of some drama, with his opponent, Vice President Gore, seated on the podium near the President-Elect.President Bush would often edit speeches by reading them aloud to a small group of advisers, which he did several times at Blair House during the transition. "Our unity, our Union," he said in his first inaugural, "is a serious work of leaders and citizens and every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity." The second inaugural was quite different, not so much a speech of national unity as a speech of national purpose. President Bush had a strong vision of what he wanted his second inaugural to accomplish. "I want it to be the freedom speech," he told me in the Cabinet room after the first Cabinet meeting following his reelection had broken up. It was intended to be a tight summary of Bush's foreign policy approach, setting high goals while recognizing great difficulties in the post-9/11 world."We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion," he said. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."Globalization figured prominently as a theme in Donald Trump's victorious presidential campaign. I would assume we are likely to hear more in his address about America's place in the globalized economy. But what do you think? What themes are we likely to hear?We are seeing a reaction to globalization across the western world, and this set of issues certainly motivated a portion of President-elect Trump's coalition. It is essential for political leaders to help a generation of workers prepare for an increasingly skills-based economy. It is a fantasy, however, for a political leader to promise the reversal of globalization, any more than he or she could promise the reversal of industrialization. Trump should address the struggles of middle and working class Americans. But it is deceptive and self-destructive to blame those struggles on trade and migrants. What happens after these big speeches are given? Do presidents and the team that helped prepare them go back to the White House and high-five each other? I guess it would be a little indecorous to throw Gatorade buckets on each other, like victorious football teams do after winning the Super Bowl.As I remember it, the new president attends a lunch hosted by congressional leaders. Then he goes to the reviewing stand in front of the White House for the inaugural parade. (Jimmy Carter actually walked in the parade a bit.)I remember entering the White House that afternoon, walking into the Roosevelt Room (where senior staff and other meetings take place) and watching a workman take down the picture of Franklin Roosevelt from above the fireplace and put up the picture of Teddy Roosevelt. I felt fortunate to be present at a great tradition. In fact, every day at the White House was an honor.This Q&A was conducted by William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute. Email: Michael Gerson was George W. Bush's speechwriter and is now a columnist for The Washington Post. Email:  Continue reading...

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