Whether we care to admit it or not, a lot of politics is really marketing.
We like the guy with the best presentation style, the nice head of hair. Research even shows that we Americans seem to have a thing for tall men; our presidents are consistently taller than average height, and the taller candidate often wins out over the shorter one.
Some of what we look for in presidential candidates is shallow (don't get me started on the double standard women face when they run for office), but the best politicians use storytelling, another marketing technique, to get their message out there.
Since today is Inauguration Day, I thought it would be fitting to look back on some of the most famous inaugural speeches in American history. These words did more than whip up the crowd or party base. They spoke to the psyche of the nation. They addressed our greatest fears and hopes. And they set the course for the coming four years.
That’s the power of great storytelling.
Abraham Lincoln (1865)
Lincoln was sworn in for his second term in 1865, following a bloody, contentious civil war. What’s incredible about his very short address—a mere 700 or so words—is that he pulls no punches in holding the South accountable: “One [side] would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
But he closes out the speech with a message of unity:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
In this speech, Lincoln sets the record straight: The South began a war to preserve their right to slavery. The North fought back and won. But there’s no gloating here. After a firm rebuke, he opens the door to healing. And his words—unadorned, simple—invite both sides to find a way forward.
While the way forward has not always been easy, and some wounds of the Civil War remain open to this day, our country did find a way to forge ahead as one united entity, against all odds. And it was the tenor of Lincoln’s speech that set us off down that path.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933)
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
This is one of those phrases so ingrained in the American memory that many may not know it comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address. The country was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and people were distraught.
Roosevelt was facing a huge uphill battle in his first term. He knew that the first step in turning things around for the nation was energizing its citizens.
Later in his speech, FDR acknowledges the hurdles Americans were facing: unemployment, loss of a lifetime of savings, and a throttled economic system. But he says, “[Our common difficulties] concern, thank God, only material things.”
It is bad, he concedes. No doubt about it. But, he goes on:
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
Over the course of his speech, he takes a grave situation and turns it into an opportunity to exercise American ingenuity and grit and to move toward a brighter future we create together. From there, he lays out his plan for getting the nation back on track and invites its citizens to join him in action.
And the rest is (literally and figuratively) history. FDR’s New Deal lifted the nation out of the Depression and left an indelible mark on the history of our country.
John F. Kennedy (1961)
When JFK assumed the presidency, the United States was coming off of an intense, dark twenty years. The Nazis, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War, the global spread of Communism, and the specter of nuclear annihilation all loomed large.
Kennedy alludes to these issues throughout his speech. But it is overall a call to global unity. He summons all nations on the right side of history to forge, “a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind.”
And then he invites each individual to become a part of this grand vision with these famous words:
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Kennedy is putting forth a vision that extends beyond the country’s borders. As one of the first leaders to assume power on the cusp of the global age, it was incumbent upon Kennedy to acknowledge that we are all, globally, in this together. To survive as a species, we must collectively find a way forward.
Throughout his short presidency, he continued to inspire us to reach for bigger things together. His famous 1962 speech about space exploration put NASA on track to touch down on the moon seven short years later. And JFK remains one of the most beloved presidents of all time because of his optimistic vision for the modern world.
I look forward to seeing what President Biden has to say today. I think in many ways our nation is on a precipice, just as it was when these other presidents addressed the citizenry. But as we can see from these examples, words do have power, and I hope Biden uses his speech to set us on a path toward healing, unity, and equality for all in the coming years.