According to a piece in the National Review, “George Washington might have had the right idea. Second inaugural addresses should be short and to the point. Of course, speaking only 135 words as Washington did in 1793 might be a little severe.” The challenge for second-termers, whether Barak Obama or the sixteen two-term presidents before him, is “how to make a second inaugural address sound fresh, meaningful and forward-looking. Almost all of Obama’s predecessors failed at this. Only Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt made history with their addresses. One stirred a nation riven by civil war; the other inspired a country roiled by deep depression. All but forgotten are the 14 other addresses, their words unable to survive the test of time. Even those presidents famed for their past oratory fell short.” This is a particularly interesting observation—surviving the test of time being here the explicit criterion. Even a president whose silver tongue mesmerizes a people of his or her time may not proffer ideas that survive beyond being a cultural artifact of the president’s own time.
Another way of approaching this perspective is in remembering that a treatise becomes a classic only after it has gone beyond its own epoch because the ideas are not only cultural artifacts of the writer’s own world. Put another way, a scholar can never know whether his or her treatise will endure through the ages. The objective of a scholar can be said to commit ideas to writing that contain something more than the cultural artifacts that by definition are limited to their source-epoch. High public officials, whether of states or unions thereof, may proffer very sweet vocal wine and yet the taste goes out of fashion as soon as the culture changes. In terms of inaugural addresses, the enduring message must place the consternation of the day in a bigger picture so as to assuage anxiety and angst. This is easier said than done.
According to the National Review, “(a) surprisingly bitter Thomas Jefferson could not match his great first inaugural; an unusually wordy Ronald Reagan could not live up to his ‘Great Communicator’ sobriquet; a decidedly humble Bill Clinton could not rise to the occasion. While most reelected presidents cannot resist the temptation to use their speeches to look back on the past four years, Lincoln had little choice but to look forward.” His genius was to do so by placing the past war in perspective, citing a higher purpose. His way forward was healing and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. To make the United States truly united once again meant more than merely getting the confederate states back. The healing and reconciliation Lincoln sought had to have a solid foundation, or they would have been dismissed as mere rhetoric by an audience otherwise bent on retribution and profit-taking at the Southerners’ expense.
I’m not sure that being forward looking is requisite, however. The key could be the inclusion of ideas that put something major at the time of the address into perspective by drawing on higher principles. Ultimately, it is the latter that transcend particular times and cultures. Moreover, people thirst for the invocation of higher principles, as most of our quotidian lives are too operational or procedural for such connections. Connecting the dots to ideas that are relatively enduring—meaning and value transcending the contours of the daily discourse in the public square—turns out to be decisive in being able to teach ears yet unborn. Put another way, meaning-making can transcend the speaker’s own time if the meaning incorporates more fundamental principles that those that are limited to the dominant ideology of one’s age.
The meaning-making can be static in providing meaning to the present, or dynamic in the sense that something major should change (i.e., forward-oriented). The invocation of fundamental principles suggests that the change being sought is transformative rather than merely regulatory or reforming. Transformational leadership can be defined as meaning-making that draws on values and principles whose vitality and validity extend beyond the leader’s own epoch and is oriented to fundamental change. The meaning provided is not applied merely to the status quo. That is, if a second-term president wants to continue to lead, he or she can make sense of the present in terms of values and principles that transcend the age. This is static leadership. The leadership can be transformational if the meaning also pertains to a transformed vision for the society, rather than merely making sense out of the present. The objective here is to move the society from the present to a desired condition in the future by invoking principles that have meaning in both conditions. Although the condition being sought is typically in the same epoch, the principles drawn on are more solid if they have validity and value in other epochs too, thus being more than cultural artifacts of the leader’s own age. I suspect that few second-term U.S. presidents have been transformational leaders after a few years into their presidencies. Put another way, even the presidents who sounded amazing may be found after the fact to have suffered from a want of ideas that have value even in the upcoming world not yet born. Whereas sweet candy today might give one a sugar-high, to survive the rigors of time better nourishment is necessary. In the context of inaugural addresses, the nourishment being sought is in the form of fundamental ideas whose value transcends the age and yet can explain the present and possibly an alternative in the age that is transformational in nature.
George E. Condon, Jr., “The Second-Term Inaugural Jinx,” National Journal, January 20, 2013.