The Five Most Memorable Inaugural Addresses
Inaugural addresses as a group are largely forgettable. When he was helping John F. Kennedy prepare his address, aide Ted Sorensen read all the past such speeches and concluded, he later wrote, that they were “a largely undistinguished lot, with some of the best eloquence emanating from some of the worst presidents.” The dozen which have been delivered since Kennedy’s 1961 address have done little to alter that judgment.
This is due in part to the men delivering the speeches. “So many of these presidents are so forgettable,” says historian Robert Dallek. “They don’t make much of a mark on the country’s memory. So I think their inaugurals reflect the quality of the men, and the historical reputation they leave us.”
Second inaugural addresses also have a special problem: how to bring drama or freshness to a continuity event. “There’s no novelty to it,” explains Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton. “A first inaugural address is America at a pivot point. … A second inaugural is a presidency at midstream.”
For the most part the speeches generally recalled as ranking among the greats were delivered at critical moments in the nation’s history. But they also managed to balance the moment with posterity. “They manage to speak very directly to their moment but they also say something to our own,” Shesol says. “They manage to be timeless without being lost in the ether somewhere and unmoored from events.”
Presidents have delivered 56 inaugural addresses. Here are the five best.