History always serves us a cautionary tale — avoiding the mistakes of the past is the surest way to avoid immense criticism, even if all we do is create new mistakes in the process.
Inaugural celebrations have been no exception. The greatest and most memorable inaugural speeches focus on the present issues, the greatness of America, and the peaceful transition of power.
The worst often speak for themselves.
James Buchanan (1857): No one likes a ‘sore winner.’
History has been unkind to Buchanan’s administration, but it started off poorly with a speech that would have been perfect for a political convention or campaign trail stop.
Buchanan’s insistence to recap his party’s winning platform, along with the cautionary warning of what might happen if we strayed from it, put many of the listeners off — even those supporting his presidency.
The issues Buchanan faced were serious ones, eventually the breeding grounds of the Civil War under the next administration. The simple shrug of ‘the majority has spoken’ created harsh feelings on all sides, but still preserved the status quo for four more years.
William Henry Harrison (1841): A caution against long-winded deliveries
Springtime in Washington D.C. is always unpredictable when it comes to weather — but it can definitely be cold and nasty outside, even in March.
Delivering a two-hour, 8,000+ word speech is usually not what the inauguration attendees are planning to listen to — especially one with meaningless, flowery bunny-trails into the world history of political science.
Harrison, of course, paid the ultimate price for standing in the rain for two hours without a coat — dying of pneumonia just a few short weeks later.
It’s tempting for politicians to want to make their mark on history, but as Shakespeare taught us, ‘brevity is the soul of wit.’
A short speech that energizes the crowd and nation is more likely to have an impact on history than droning on for hours about topics important to the new president.
Andrew Jackson (1829): You have to maintain control of your followers
Jackson didn’t engage in self-aggrandizement or a long-winded delivery — where he failed was in the complete out-of-control nature of his followers.
It's tempting for politicians to want to make their mark on history, but as Shakespeare taught us, 'brevity is the soul of wit.'David Yee, IVN Independent Author
You have to energize your followers, but there’s definitely a fine line between ‘pumped-up’ and ‘riotous’ when it comes to politics.
In hind-sight, it’s pretty apparent that an open house at the White House with 20,000 of your followers is simply going to end poorly — the more amazing part is that the practice of open houses continued for another half-century until Grover Cleveland set the ‘new norm’ of holding a parade.
Donald Trump (2017): It’s now time to lead
Who knows what the overall tone of Trump’s inaugural speech will be — especially with reports that he plans to write his own address.
The biggest problem Trump is still facing is that there is an enormous difference between winning the presidency and forming a functioning government.
Trump’s challenge is going to be transitioning from the 140-word tweet to a meaningful public address for Americans — not just crowing on about the greatness of his victory, bragging about his role in saving jobs, or the vague championing of issues.
History will judge Trump on how he makes this transition.
But one thing is certain, leadership has its risks and rewards. But inevitably, Truman’s ‘buck stops here’ is the ultimate cautionary tale — the president leads through good times and bad, successes and failures, all while having to accept the ultimate responsibility as our nation’s president.