Former White House Speechwriters Offer Insight Into Biden's Inaugural Address

What phrase might we hear from President-elect Joe Biden today?

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Inaugural speeches have given us some of the most famous lines in American political history: Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself," or John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you."

So, what phrase might we hear from President-elect Joe Biden today?

"I think he's going to be talking about restoring the soul of America. That's a phrase I think he really likes," said Jonathan Horn, a speech writer for President George W. Bush during his two terms in office.

Jonathan Horn
Jonathan Horn, on the left at the end of the couch, was a speech writer for President George W. Bush during his two terms in office. Photo Credit: Jonathan Horn

Horn expects Biden's inaugural speech will address current challenges from coronavirus as well as bringing together a divided country.

"I think he really is going to make an effort to reach out to people who did not support him in this election. And I think he really is going to be having a message of unity where he's going to be talking about the soul of America and trying to restore decency to the office, to our country and to bring this country together. And I think he might use the phrase 'a time for healing.' That's a phrase I've heard him use and I would expect to hear something like that again," Horn told NBC 5 in a virtual interview.

"This is the most important speech of Joe Biden's career… And perhaps the most challenging," wrote Charlie Fern, former speechwriter for first lady Laura Bush, in an email to NBC5. "The optics will be bad - imagine the armed guards and fencing, and likely having to speak over the voices of angry groups who have the potential to riot. It will be a scene that looks more like a wartime era to many. So his remarks should appropriately reflect the scene - and he would do well to set a somber, conciliatory tone as the foundation for a unifying speech that is forceful yet faithful to the promise of a better future."

"One of the most powerful things that's gonna be, that he's gonna have to decide how to handle, is he's gonna be in front of the capitol where we all saw those terrible images from January 6th. So, even if he doesn't say anything about it, it's going to be a powerful image for people at home to see him standing there where we saw those terrible scenes," added Horn.

Both former White House speech writers believe Biden will outline his vision for the next four years and set the tone for how he will govern.

"I don't think you're gonna hear a ton of specific policy proposals. That's not something I would expect to hear in an inaugural address. You're thinking big picture ideas, principles, the way you're going to lead this country, your vision for what America should look like. So, I don't think you're gonna hear specifics but I do think you'll hear broadly that he's gonna confront the coronavirus. he's gonna bring this country together," Horn added.

Fern says Biden would also be wise to "strike a tone and set the stage for a future that is distinct from his past with Obama … And our recent past with Trump."

"He’s had his work cut out for him, and I’m sure his speech-writing team will be glad when that final draft is delivered," Fern wrote.

Horn says the hardest part of speech writing isn't coming up with the perfect line; it's getting the structure of the speech to come together. Horn thinks it's possible Biden's team will take a cue from history.

"I might go back all the way to the election of 1800 which was the very first election where power transferred from one political party to another, and Thomas Jefferson gave a famous line where he said, 'We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.' That was the name of the two parties back then, and I think that might be good model for Joe Biden as he's thinking about his speech."

Horn recalls "the tremendous dignity and honor with which President Bush left the office, and how important it was to him to have a smooth transition of power to President Obama. That was something that was very important to President Bush."

Horn left his speech writing days behind, and is now an author. His 2020 book 'Washington's End' begins with the precedent-setting peaceful transfer of power in 1797.

"I think it's something we take for granted today because George Washington did set that precedent on March 4, 1797, when he showed the world something that no one alive had ever seen - power peacefully transferring from one living head of state to another," Horn said. "And it's something I hope all Americans take time to appreciate and to pay homage to our history and to take care of that history so that future generations can enjoy it as well.

President Trump will not attend today's inauguration ceremony, the first president to skip the event in 150 years. Vice-President Mike Pence will be there, and Horn believes it will be "very important for Joe Biden to say something to Mike Pence 'cuz Mike Pence will be the figure who most stands in for the peaceful transition of power."

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