(Usually I write these essays by watching the speeches in chronological order as I write my thoughts in real time, and then arranging them from most effective to least. In this case, for reasons unknown to me now, I started with Trump and then worked backwards. Because of this, I will end up referencing later speeches in my reactions to earlier speeches. Sorry if that throws you off.)
This one begins the trend I’ve noticed of ’60s inaugurations where the President talks about technological progress and change, as Kennedy says that we now have the capacity to end starvation or human life. Interestingly, he would strive to do the former, with the New Frontier (Great Society) and the latter almost happened on his watch with the Cuban missile crisis. Then Kennedy transitions into the typical historical pandering, reminding us about the Revolutionary War and that whole cliche…pledging to help liberty around the world… These speeches really were not meant to be watched in marathon like this. The “form letter” commonalities really become obnoxious when viewed back to back.
There’s a cool shout-out to the new states Alaska and Hawaii—it’s sometimes hard to fathom that there were new states being admitted as recently as 1959. There’s the typical pledge to help other countries under the thumb of Communism, and a more unusual pledge to help fight poverty in South America. There’s a troubling call to build up arms to prevent attack by the Soviets, and some phrases which I honestly believe would be laughed at if used in a speech today like “the deadly atom” and blaming science (rather than war, or tyranny) for the new instruments of destruction. I have to be honest, if I heard a President denounce science like this today, my immediate reaction would be to file it under “anti-intellectualism.”
There’s a particularly great line when Kennedy says “let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” He famously calls for the exploration of space in this speech, which must have sounded crazy at the time. More obscurely, he also called for “conquering the desert,” which I assume means fighting off desertification. This really impressed me because, especially now, that is a serious problem I never hear anyone in politics talk about. In many ways, Kennedy was a forward thinking progressive-idealist, far ahead of his time. (Or perhaps, the present time is far behind him.)
I’m not a big fan of quoting the Bible in a political context, however, but at least it’s about helping the poor rather than blind faith in God to fix our problems or an excuse to begin demonizing others. When Kennedy mentions how this won’t happen in his presidency, it may be the best example of the adage that “societies are great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit under” I’ve ever seen in a US speech. This is also notable as the only inaugural address (thus far) where the President asks a direct question to the audience (“will you join this historic effort?” and they answer yes.)
Kennedy ends on one of the most famous lines in US political history, and one which sums up the attitude America used to have between 1932 and 1972 (what I’ve dubbed “The Liberal Era.”) He says “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” The line and its placement in the speech are the complete antithesis to Reagan’s own about government and its relation to individuals two decades later.
ASIDE: To interject my own opinion, I think it would be wonderful if Americans could put aside their greedy “I got mine, fuck you” mentality which developed since the Reagan years (the Me generation of the 80s, what I call “The Dynastic Era”) and come together in service of their country again as it was in the days of FDR and Kennedy. The polarization, crony capitalism and deliberate sabotage in my lifetime has destroyed everything Kennedy wanted us to accomplish here. With such harrowing trials ahead as climate change, the end of the Pax Americana, the Automation Crisis and unprecedented foreign subversion of our own democracy, individuals cannot be an island onto themselves anymore like in the ’80s. There are forces bigger than any one man up against us, and “if we don’t hang together we shall surely hang separately.”
The problem is no one cares about planting those proverbial trees for future generations anymore. Nobody has any tolerance for big picture projects like fixing our infrastructure, a Mars mission and staving off climate change these days. Neither leaders nor businessmen (think Walt Disney) have visionary goals for the future anymore. We’re all either greedily looking to make it big with money and fame, or we’re so buried in medical or student debt, bills and distractions that we can’t afford to think of anything beyond where the next paycheck is coming from and will it be enough. It’s a sad state of affairs. We went from a nation of empowerment and idealism, flawed though it may have been, to one of neo-feudalism and stockholm syndrome. I look around and everyone I see knows things aren’t going as they should. It’s just so many people can’t (or feel like they can’t) do anything about it anymore. In Congress, in day to day affairs and even based on how the Trump administrations acts, it’s a very divided everyone’s-out-for-only-themselves culture these days. There’s no longer any strive towards the betterment of the nation as a whole, or respect for your fellow countrymen. By any standard, this cannot be healthy long term.
Anyway, this was a fabulous speech, and the best one of the inaugurals by a substantial margin. It is also undeniably the most iconic of the bunch, along with Reagan’s first. Both of these pretty well defined the attitudes of the times they were delivered. But unlike Reagan’s, where the delivery came off as rushed and uncharacteristically awkward from an otherwise gifted speaker, JFK’s was delivered with confidence and poise. It hit on all the points I’ve come to want or expect in an inaugural by this point—no stupid clichéd mention of Washington taking the oath, specific promises and goals, and an iconic line everyone remembers that sums up the idea behind the new administration. The only potential drawback, depending on your point of view, is that Kennedy does not thank Eisenhower for his service, as all the others did to their predecessor’s. If ever there was an inaugural address which I think everyone today ought to watch, this is it.
I like how this begins with space travel, peace, and the new horizons humanity was reaching at this point in time. I think this really captures the mood of the year, and allows for what I’m sure was a nice contrast to the chaos and dread from the previous year (with all the assassinations and Nixon’s harsher “law and order” rhetoric.) Such a creative beginning also makes this speech stand out against so many other inaugural addresses which lazily start by referencing how “two hundred years ago, George Washington took the first oath of office…” trying to relive that same tired, stock moment for all of infinity. In my opinion, this is what all inaugural addresses should be, a mix of relevancy to the time they’re given while still looking forward to the future, rather than reliving the obsolete rose-tinted past forever.
Nixon’s whole anecdote about how being a “peacemaker” is the highest honor one can be bestowed is undone by the fact that he sabotaged peace talks with Vietnam under LBJ, promising them a better deal if they held out. And for good measure, it’s unclear if Nixon would have ended the war when he did in ’72 if it were not from the pressure of McGovern’s candidacy either. That’s the disgusting underbelly of national politics; so many of the pretty words in these speeches are just masking ugly actions. It makes it impossible to enjoy many of these otherwise eloquent moments, I’m sorry to say.
I like what Nixon’s saying about transferring funds out of war and towards helping those in need at home. This was the warning of Eisenhower himself almost 10 years earlier, whom Nixon served under as VP. I’m wondering if being so close to the man who sounded the alarm genuinely convinced Nixon of this issue’s importance or if this was just white noise. Either way, it’s just really sad to think it never actually happened. This can’t even specifically be blamed on the Republicans or Nixon either, since LBJ escalated the Vietnam war and besides maybe Carter, every Democratic president has been just as warmongering and interventionist as their Republican counterparts. It’s just an unfortunate reality that by this time, and possibly since JFK’s assassination, the military industrial complex and intelligence community had become too powerful to reign in. It may have already been too late when Eisenhower delivered his farewell address.
I like and dislike the line about how “no man is truly whole until he’s devoted himself to a cause greater than himself.” This directly contradicts my own personal philosophy with the Age of Aquarius and how the individual, and in particular the human mind, is the ultimate end in itself. I think in many ways, devoting yourself to an idea or an identity bigger than yourself can be very dangerous. That’s what Nationalism, Religious fundamentalism, authoritarian socialism, fascism and so many other dangerous movements are built on–aimless people looking for a purpose in a cause. However, I do think there’s something to be said about how you need to at least explore bigger ideals, and do SOMETHING to try to leave the world in some way better than you found it. I would just say that no one “ism” or institution has all the answers, that you should not lose your own identity in a cause, and that moderation and open mindedness are the key. Devote yourself to a higher cause yet be skeptical of authority and don’t lose yourself in the process. But, that doesn’t make for a snappy zinger in a speech, does it?
I like the talk about friendly competition among nations, making sure not to make any more enemies and of exploring space together. And to his immense credit, Nixon did in fact follow through with these lofty goals. His visit to China was arguably the most astute foreign policy maneuver in American history, and the moon landing happened on his watch. It’s ironic of course that his party stagnated the space program and now are undoing that careful alliance with China…but obviously you can’t fault Nixon himself for that.
This was overall a really good speech, and a noticeable improvement over his second inauguration. This far in, I’m noticing the trend seems to be that the second speeches are always worse than the first (though I preferred Reagan’s second, I think his supporters would prefer his first too.) Even though this wasn’t my favorite of the inaugurals I’ve seen thus far, I think it probably serves as the best example of what an inaugural address ought to be. What I mean is, this speech embodies its own message for the moment in time it was written. There’s not the millionth reference to Washington and Jefferson, reminding us all of what we already know and reliving the past. It’s eloquent, idealistic and looking towards the future. If Nixon had not become so reviled after Watergate, I’d even say that this would have been remembered as one of the all-time great inaugural speeches, something on the level of Lincoln and FDR. I feel like I’m not even doing this speech enough justice with these scattered reactions and observations. I think this is one of the few here which I’d like to read and/or rewatch at some point.
Like his second speech, this also starts quickly. There’s no drawn out introduction or shout-outs, just right down into business. He thanks his predecessor, Bush, for his service to the country. The promising start begins to go awry for me when Clinton quotes George Washington (I hate cliched, overly familiar quotes and references but that’s just my personal pet peeve) and feels the need to remind us that in Washington’s time, news traveled slowly by horseback “or, overseas, by boat.” Thanks for the history lesson, Bill. I can’t be the only one who thinks the constant repetition of Washington’s name, or reminding us about stuff from the past we already know is both pointless and corny as hell.
I like the line “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” That’s the first really great quotable line I’ve heard yet in any of these speeches, working backwards from Trump. Also, unlike Obama or Bush, the promises Clinton lays out here were actually carried out, so that’s pretty awesome. That’s the way it should be. It’s around this point when the speech actually picks up again. He starts speaking with real conviction, and talking about real, specific issues. Compared to Obama’s vacuous platitudes and Bush’s “freedom…freedom…freedom…” it’s a breath of fresh air.
This was great, and stronger than anything that came after, from W to Trump. Like his and Gore’s convention speeches from the same cycle, it’s fresh, bold, exciting and articulate without being alienating. To be brutally honest, I find the Clintons to be uncomfortably shady and their political legacy to be far more harmful than not. That said, Bill Clinton is possibly the most consistently great orator in modern history. Every single speech he’s given is always in the top 3 or 4 of their respective category, where most candidates typically have at least one notably substandard entry somewhere along the line.
I love how he opens this speech. No bullshitting, no quotes, no drawn out shout-outs to people in the audience. It’s a unique opening, talking about looking towards the next century, and celebrating our accomplishments of the past century. I suppose this is somewhat cliched as well…but it’s different. It feels a lot more directed and purposeful than Obama 2012 or either of Bush’s. Clinton also makes reference to his previous term, even his previous inaugural address, which actually comes off very natural as opposed to self-aggrandizing. I mean, it only seems to make sense to acknowledge that you’ve done this before, and what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since then. I’m puzzled Obama and Bush didn’t seem to really do this themselves. To me, it made their second speeches seem somewhat less genuine. It’s like they were just going through the motions with their happy happy “liberty ‘n’ freedom” talking points again.
Clinton references Reagan’s iconic quote from almost two decades ago, but says that government is neither the solution nor the problem…but “we the people” are the solution. I just…eh. I don’t know. I mean, what is government if not made up of people? I think a more honest and less eye-rolling zinger would involve mentioning the separation of powers that our founders envisioned. And maybe talking about how neither government nor markets nor labor by themselves are purely problems or solutions, but that they must act as a check against each other in the same manner. Unregulated government is bad, but so is toothless government dominated by unregulated business. The truth is that as political power is (in theory) decentralized in America so too must economic power, with the three (or four) branches being companies, consumers, labor and the government as a mediator between the three. I just think ignoring the context/intent of Reagan’s quote (that government is inherently bad and we need to privatize everything) so Clinton can give a nice phony line about “the people” is stupid and unhelpful. The idea was there but the execution was way off.
I think it’s very astute of Clinton when he talks about racist prejudice being cloaked in religious or political convictions. That’s essentially the Southern Strategy republican party in a nutshell (you may take offense, some of you, but it’s undeniably a big part of your electoral coalition.) He asks aloud whether America will come together or be torn apart, and sadly 20 years later I think the answer proved to be the latter. We’re more polarized than we’ve ever been, and I wonder if Bill himself thought of this line of his again when Trump was elected.
I have to say, talking about how “the greatest promise we have made…and the greatest promise we have yet to make…is in the human heart” was a pretty groan inducing line. I like the sentiment but it sounds like something from Barney the Dinosaur, not the President of the US. Similarly, talking about the “bright flame of freedom” felt like something out of a parody of a politician’s speech. That was another gag inducing line.
A pretty good speech that started off strong and then kinda tapered off a bit. A noticeable step down from his previous attempt.
In stark contrast to 2012, I remember seeing this live and being ecstatic about it. Our math teacher stopped class so we could listen, and our principal made an announcement after the fact. At the time, it felt like a new era was dawning in American history…and then we got 8 years of empty rhetoric, broken promises, incremental at best progress and gridlock. And now we’ve just elected a crazy man. Yay.
This speech begins a lot better than 2012 with the cheesy Declaration quote. I see it as proof that it’s better to speak your own original words than quote cliched documents or speeches everyone already knows by heart. This is especially true at the beginning of your speech, when you really need to grab the audience. Obviously Obama’s going to speak of the same high ideals of the Constitution and Declaration somewhere in there anyway, but by restating it all in his own words, it feels more like he understands those ideals in the first place. The crowd seems a lot more enthusiastic as well.
It’s sad listening to Obama talk about the great things America has done in the past as an example of what will be accomplished again under him, knowing that he got stonewalled at every turn. However, listening to his talk of the market being an “unmatched” force for good is a little unnerving to me. That’s right-wing neoliberal talk if I’ve ever heard it. To his credit, Obama does use the recession to say that the market needs to be watched, but again I feel like a true leftist ought to talking about workers/consumers rights first and foremost when it comes to economics, not blind faith in an abstract entity like the market, founded on greed and profit above all. Considering Main street got no bailout and the bankers were kept in place after sinking the economy…I mean the least Obama could have done is give them some kind of assurance in a speech like this. That’s another example of occasional hypocrisy and half measures which seemed to be the hallmark of Obama’s presidency.
The line against foreign governments that “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy” also rings hallow considering how much money we waste on the military while our infrastructure goes to rot. Admittedly, Congress has the power of the purse, and this is one case where Obama did in fact mean well but was stonewalled. All the same, I hear this and think “who the hell is America to say that to any other country?” He ought to have directed this quote to our country itself, maybe Congress specifically, and then it’d be an instant classic line instead of bald-faced hypocrisy.
The ending where Obama talks about himself, but it’s not clear he’s doing so until the anecdote is finished, reminded me a lot of Nixon’s 1968 convention speech. Considering Nixon’s reputation that may sound like an insult, but it was powerful when Nixon did it and it’s (somewhat less) powerful here. This was far better than Obama’s second inaugural address. I actually felt like he believed what he was saying this time.
The accidental President. Like his administration, this is the shortest speech on this list by far at just 8 minutes. And he begins by referencing (who else?) Washington of course! Watching these all at once, it’s like, doesn’t anyone get sick of the same stock talking points? I mean, for real, surely it must be grating to others besides me. I know these speeches were not meant to be watched one by one, but rather a national pep rally every four years. But still, wouldn’t you want yours to stand out? If I were elected President I’d look through the historical speeches of the past and learn what works, what’s been done to death, and how to make my speech stand out using some obscure but relevant quotes. But hey…that’s me. To be fair to Ford, this wasn’t something he expected either, and he’s just trying to make the best of it here. This criticism isn’t directed at him particularly, but rather at everyone for their lack of originality.
I like how Ford frames this speech as “not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech, but just a little straight talk among friends.” That was a great line. As was his acknowledging his own un-elected status. It was good to get out ahead of such criticism and controversy. It makes this speech feel a lot more modest and real. He’s not trying to seize this moment to live out a dream of presidential ambitions, or to stroke his ego by milking the spotlight as lesser men might have done. Rather, he’s addressing the extraordinary circumstances and promising to do right by his countrymen in this troubled time. I also found it tasteful how Ford doesn’t address Watergate directly in this speech, though of course you can feel the shadow of that scandal in the air. It was good not to delve into the muck, or throw shade at his predecessor however much Nixon may have deserved it. Ford even wishes Nixon and his family peace, which was a nice example of being the bigger man, and forgiving those who wrong us even though it’s hard. Nixon deserved to be raked over the coals, but as President I don’t think it would have been becoming of Ford to take part in that. (That said, in my opinion the pardon was a step too far in the other direction.)
Ford has always been one of my least favorite speakers and candidates. He’s boring, had the reputation of a goofball, and managed to lose to one of the three least charismatic candidates of the modern era (the other two being Mondale and Hillary.) This speech, like his farewell address and debate performances, isn’t particularly eloquent, enticing or iconic. But unlike those other examples of Ford’s rhetoric, this did exactly what it needed to do. It was not the time for a big bombastic victory speech or droning on with the typical “hope, freedom, justice, ‘muricah!” talking points. The American people were shocked and disgraced and they needed a friendly straight talk as he called it. You can tell Ford is either sad or nervous here (among other things, his voice cracks at one point.) But that lends a sincerity that was also present at Nixon’s farewell address too, which actually raised the impact of the speech by its imperfection. Wabi sabi. So even though this wouldn’t be a great speech in another context, for the one in which it was given, I think it was perfect.
Reagan begins with a prayer…but thankfully (and tastefully) it was a silent one, and in honor of a passed Senator. That’s a lot more acceptable than what Bush pulled the very next cycle. What’s not is the stupid cliched callback to Washington yet again. It’s almost like there haven’t been dozens of other presidents with proud accomplishments, interesting anecdotes, and inspiring quotes to reference in the intervening 200 years of our history! Seriously, why does everything have to be Washington? It’s just so expected and lacking in imagination. This isn’t a dig against Reagan specifically, but every modern President. Do something new for once. Talk about Lincoln, or Jackson, or Roosevelt or something. Fuck, talk about Garfield or Rutherford Hayes!
Reagan himself actually does do this later in the speech, to his credit. He talks about Adams and Jefferson’s feud as well as their reconciliation as evidence of how Americans should come together. Reagan joins the ranks of many national politicians who talk about simplifying the tax code and then never followed through. Even if it’s an unfulfilled promise, I like how he’s speaking in specific policy issues and goals though. He still increased the debt more than any previous President however, so that’s one of many broken promises a President makes in these speeches.
The cadence of Reagan’s voice is very interesting here. Unlike his peers, he doesnt feel the need to be loud and exciting. He’s a lot more quiet and poised. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the others, more akin to a grandpa reading a bedtime story than a man in his prime trying to rally a crowd. I hate Reagan and everything he stands for, but he’s probably the easiest to listen to of any President. My problem with Reagan has never been his oration or even (most of) his rhetoric. This speech, and even “A Time for Choosing” have some very powerful anecdotes, it’s just that Reagan governed in complete antithesis to a lot of what he himself said in those speeches. The increase in the debt being one example. In short, this is a good speech, even if it’s a bad President delivering it.
I remember this making a big splash from my more shallow “New New Left” friends in high school at the time, though I myself didn’t see it. Those who liked it are the kind of people that are easily impressed by any cheap, casual lip service to women or gays but then disengage or defend the administration to the death when you mention NSA surveillance or the expansion of our military intervention abroad. They’re the kind of people who are convinced Obama is awesome because he does the bare minimum to appear socially tolerant while ignoring the fact that he’s done as much if not more than any President to destroy civil liberties. In case you couldn’t already tell, the ridiculously over the top praise he got pissed me off at the time, and it still does now to tell you the truth. In this particular instance, the source of this undeserved praise came from Obama’s brief, fleeting mention of gay rights. I’m all for LGBT rights too (obviously) but a) there’s more important issues I’d have liked to see Obama make good on and b) it takes more than lip service about LGBT people to impress me.
I think it’s kinda cheesy and a waste of time to quote the Declaration of Independence, which we all know, but he does so to make a good point that we need to fight for our own rights. Ironically, Obama’s own presidency, with his surveillance state, NDAA and extrajudicial droning attacks is actually proof enough of this. I feel like I’m gonna be saying this a lot in this series of analyses, but I like what Obama’s saying…I just don’t think he did enough as President to carry out his own pretty words. Talking about regulating the free market to insure fairness after bailing out failed, exploitative businesses is one example. Talking about ending war while he’s bombing and droning seven countries is another. Talking about reforming the tax code and government…yeah, that never happened. Some of these are genuine promises or sentiments, like when he talks about never letting the elderly suffer in retirement or dealing with climate change. The tragedy is, even these few fleeting bits of sincerity were hampered by Congress or they’re about to be undone by his successor.
Not much to say, really. Just a lot of fluff and emptiness. I recall his convention speeches being a lot better. I’m surprised there is not more referencing specific accomplishments from his last term, talking about what specifically he’s going to continue building on from that, and things of that nature. You know, something more honest and substantial. I notice a distinct lack of energy too, which is bemusing. Maybe it was very cold, or maybe I wasn’t the only one sick of Obama’s two-faced disposition at this point. This is also the phoniest I’ve seen Obama. His convention speeches and his farewell address were a lot more energized and felt more “real” for lack of a better term. This just feels like he’s going through the motions and checking off “inspirational speech” cliches. What happened?
This speech is another one with a somewhat unique beginning, talking about how beautiful the peaceful transition of power really is between two competing factions. I have to think that this is at least a little bit of a dig intended at Carter though, especially how Reagan only thanks Carter after emphasizing that power has changed hands. And Reagan doesn’t thank Carter for his service either, he literally just thanks him for stepping aside. It’s a clear insult, but delivered with a subtlety that’s lacking in political discourse today. In fact, this may be the greatest backhanded compliment in all of US political history. I’m not a fan of either President so I have no dog in the fight. I think this was rude on Reagan’s part, but it’s such a well-executed barb with so much plausible deniability that I greatly admire it from a rhetorical perspective. I respect the chutzpah and wit it took to pull off.
In typical Reagan fashion, I agree with a lot what he’s saying…but the fact is he did the exact opposite as president bothers me. Somehow he still gets credit for doing these things anyway and that only makes it all the more frustrating. An example being when he talks about the government running up debts when his administration would leave us with a debt unprecedented until Bush Jr (another Republican). The cult of Reagan is one of the most surreal and dangerous trends in US politics today, a masterpiece of double-think and prideful ignorance.
I will say, he gives by far the most effective and iconic line I’ve yet heard in any of these inaugural speeches: “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” That line essentially shifted the entire overton window in America and redefined the paradigm of the two parties ever since. I hate it, I vehemently disagree with it, and I think Reagan is a scumbag for saying it. But damn you have to recognize what a successful line that is all the same. I’d say that’s been the biggest failure of every inaugural address since, that they didn’t have that one singular line which completely summed up the President’s agenda like this one does. Considering the two most famous speeches on this list (Reagan ’80 and Kennedy ’60) did so, I’d recommend any future presidents to try to meet that criteria going forward. It’s the witty zingers people remember years later, not the billionth Washington reference or sappy overtures to freedom.
Reagan talks about curbing the size of government…and then would go on to expand it. He emphasizes that the states created the federal government, clearly implying that the states should come first. Again, I can actually agree with that. I just don’t see how he nor any other Republican really did anything to reverse that trend towards the Federal. They want states rights to discriminate, but when it comes to say, states rights to legalize weed or something, suddenly they need to be brought to heel.
Surprisingly for Reagan, I find this speech to be somewhat flawed in terms of his oration. He has some great lines here, but he doesn’t give them time to properly sink in. He seems to almost be going too fast, and I don’t know why. Its not like he’s nervous, and he delivered great speeches before and after. So I’m not sure what’s up this time around.
And hey, credit where it’s due, he gives a shout-out to, and quotation by, a politician whom I had never heard of, Joseph Warren. And that’s what I’m talking about. We have a rich history with plenty of heroes and ideologues besides Washington. Our politicians ought to address that more, and give kudos to the overlooked figures of American history. This reference in particular inspired me to look up the originator of the quote and learn more about our history. So, I give major props to Reagan for doing that. Of course, he then starts talking about Washington later in the speech…so…baby steps I guess.
This was an alright speech. But that’s all—just alright. And coming from one of the better orators of modern American history, that’s pretty strange, especially considering this was his big moment. It’s not just the slightly rushed delivery, but even the awkward way he waves to the crowd after, and doesn’t remain at the podium. Reagan (and almost all Presidents, as an occupational requirement) typically exudes confidence…so seeing this was really weird. I guess he was caught up in the moment and humbled by his victory? Who knows.