The 5 Best Inaugural Addresses

While most inaugural addresses are forgettable, these five speeches endure.

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It was a "uniquely radical speech," says Cohen. "It's an amazingly self-confident speech, but also one that represents a real shift in governing philosophy."

The speech, adds Shesol, whose book Supreme Power recounts Roosevelt's second-term, court-packing fight, is "in many ways the equal of the first [inaugural] in the clarity of the argument and the beauty of the language. … It's not just a series of lines, but it says so much about who he was and what he did."

John F. Kennedy's, 1961: Shortly after his hair's-breadth victory over Vice President Richard Nixon, President-elect Kennedy huddled with Sorensen, his top aide and chief speechwriter, to discuss the inaugural address. "Make it shortest since T.R. (except for FDR's abbreviated wartime ceremony in 1945)," Sorensen jotted in a note to himself.

Brevity (it was less than 1,400 words) was one of the virtues of Kennedy's ringing inaugural. It was also what the historian David Greenberg has called "the last expression of a now-eclipsed strain of Churchillian oratory"—recall, for example, "Now the trumpet summons us again…" Kennedy ordinarily shunned such flourishes. Simplicity and clarity were the goals in his speeches, though he valued pungency of expression as well. "The inaugural was a special occasion, and there was a special tone in that speech," Sorensen later recalled.

[See Photos: Obama Behind the Scenes.]

That tone and that language—"ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country"—have made it the benchmark against which subsequent addresses have been measured. Uniquely on this list, Kennedy's speech did not occur at a time the country was facing imminent crisis (despite his declaration that he spoke during the "hour of maximum danger" for freedom), though the circumstances of the speech have helped it endure: He was the youngest elected president, speaking of "the torch [having] been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…." And the speech came at a cultural tipping moment. "I don't think you would have felt in a Nixon inaugural in January, 1961 some kind of momentous shift of the generations," says Shesol. And, adds Dallek, author of the JFK biography An Unfinished Life, the speech gave the country "some new, fresh hope and optimism."

Like FDR's second inaugural, Kennedy's speech was also an eloquent expression of political philosophy, this one focused on foreign affairs. The declaration that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe" takes on a grim tone after the tragedy of the Vietnam War. But that rhetoric is also balanced by the language of internationalism, a desire for peace, and a hope for a "new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved." The economist John Kenneth Galbraith contributed a notion which would become one of the speech's best known passages: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

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