After Bill Clinton took the oath of office for the second time in 1997, a USA Today columnist burbled, “Clinton’s inaugural address should be regarded as the opening bell of his final campaign to win a measure of historical greatness… By that standard, Clinton deserves two-and-a-half cheers for his decision to frame his speech around a renewed appeal for racial harmony.”
Clinton’s second term left a vivid imprint on the nation, but that inaugural address turned out to be a rare pallid moment. The words that Clinton delivered from the west front of the Capitol are mostly lost in the mists of memory. The 42nd president’s well-intentioned creation of a national commission on race relations ended with a sense of lost opportunity.
As the nation’s political media prepare for President Obama’s second inaugural address next Monday, I have conjured up these Clintonian memories because I was that USA Today columnist—and the deadline-driven words I hammered out after the speech exhibit classic symptoms of a journalistic malady known as “Inaugural Over-Hype.” In the patriotic aura of the moment, ordinary presidential words are transformed into oratory worthy of Bartlett’s and rhetorical flourishes become confused with action.
Second inaugurals are particularly tough on reporters and pundits alike. The man with his left hand on the Bible has already dominated American political life for the prior four years, so there is scant sense of mystery and only muted excitement. The inaugural pageantry is just a parade, a speech, and a series of glittering parties, rather than a non-stop set of revelations about the man who will call the Oval Office home for the next four years.
But there are still thousands of words to write, and long hours of airtime to fill. Historical analogies can take you only so far, despite the irresistible temptation to invoke William Henry Harrison dying from pneumonia after a nearly two-hour inaugural address and John Kennedy’s stirring words on a frost-bitten January afternoon in 1961.
As a result, we fall prey to the Mount Rushmore game of trying to assess how the reelected president fits into the pantheon of his predecessors. Words like “legacy” and “historical greatness” are suddenly brandished as frequently as a surly teen-ager mumbles, “Whatever.” That was the sort of thing that I wrote back in 1997 (mercifully, that bygone USA Today column is not available on Google), and I fear that I may blunder down the same grandiloquent road again as I offer online commentary under the aegis of Yahoo News this Inauguration Day.
Sometimes the point of press criticism is not to take up the cudgel of reform, but merely to acknowledge the foibles that we are all prone to. Despite all the cynicism embedded into the DNA of the press corps, it will be difficult to be a churl when John Roberts administers the oath to Obama. So on Monday a certain degree of…well, not exactly cheering…over-emoting from the press box is probably inevitable.
The risk comes when the rally-around-the-flag sentimentality of Inauguration Day gets in the way of realistic judgment. Another Obama speech about Newtown is unlikely to bring the NRA to its knees. The chasm between Democrats’ and Republicans’ economic agendas cannot be bridged by a burst of presidential eloquence. An inaugural address is a national feel-good moment, but those feelings often wear off by the time any legislation reaches the floor of the Congress.
Every president—even the accidental ones, like Harry Truman and Jerry Ford—is blessed with a powerful ego. Passing the portraits in the White House (let alone talking to them like Richard Nixon) undoubtedly makes a president even more conscious of his place in history.
But what the media sometimes forgets amid the inaugural hype machine is that not everything a president does in his second term is a play to be immortalized by the American Historical Association. Sometimes in the White House—as in the lyrics of an old honky-tonk song—the goal is simply “to help me make it through the night.” Desperate improvisation probably contributes more to a presidential legacy than bullet-point memos about a second-term agenda.
Inauguration Week is also the time when the media casts its adoring eyes on that endangered species called the Washington Wise Man. (This is another venue where women have hit the glass ceiling). Nothing better adds a grace note to a newspaper article or a TV show than a soliloquy by a man who once held a high White House position but now is called upon the explain the sweep of presidential history.
Lobbyist Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff, has been playing that role with brio during the run-up to the inauguration. In recent days, he has been quoted by The Associated Press and USA Today, while also appearing on CNN—and I suspect that his dance card is even more jammed for the coming weekend. Former Clinton aide Bill Galston, a friend now at the Brookings Institute, is also having a nice run in the media limelight.
As a commentator who has been writing about presidential inaugurals since 1985, I have a small piece of advice for my peers in the press box: Jettison a few gushy adjectives on Monday and resist all temptation to compare the Obama speech (no matter how stirring) to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. As for readers and TV viewers, please forgive us this day of journalistic excess—and you can be confident that we will return to our normal attitude of skepticism by the time Obama delivers his State of the Union address in three weeks.