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Presidential speechwriters survey the carnage

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The vast majority of inaugural addresses have one thing in common: They are eminently forgettable. From Zachary Taylor’s 1849 invocation that “Happily…, in the performance of my new duties I shall not be without able cooperation,” to William Howard Taft’s bland pledge in 1909 “to give a summary outline of the main policies of the new administration, so far as they can be anticipated,” the oratory of this auspicious day has aspired to lofty ambition, yet typically it has failed to transcend the moment.

Donald Trump’s address was brief, forceful, and consistent with his campaign rhetoric. But where does Trump’s address rank in the pantheon of inaugural addresses? Did his oratory reflect his unconventional candidacy and uncanny rise to power? What do former White House speechwriters think of his speech?

Yahoo News asked five former senior presidential advisers and White House speechwriters from Republican and Democratic administrations to discuss why inaugural addresses are so difficult to draft, why the vast majority of them are so forgettable, and for their reactions to Trump’s first speech as president.

Here are their reactions:

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“Here is our country through our president’s eyes: beset by carnage and decline; controlled by greedy, self-serving politicians; subsidizing countries around the world while our people are left to struggle. And here is his promise: ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.’ No surprises there; it’s the populist message that got him to this moment. More surprising, perhaps, was that he stuck to his script, and only uttered the word ‘I’ in service to the public: ‘I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.’ The president gets points for brevity; the speech was tight, with clear, declarative sentences, and a few poetic images, like the ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.’ There were also, as promised, repeated assertions of unity — though a gracious gesture to Hillary Clinton and her supporters was striking for its absence. But I am left wondering, still, if he really understands the job for which he’s been selected. Our new president says, ‘The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.’ Mr. President, what has arrived is the hour of accountability. Welcome to Washington. You are part of it now.”

—Vinca LaFleur, who served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and is a partner at West Wing Writers

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“Very populist, not soaring rhetoric, more ‘God’ than I expected. His remarks were not particularly humble or gracious, especially to the elected officials on the dais.

Sort of a ‘greatest hits’ from his previous speeches (stump speech, convention address, victory speech). Most consequential line: ‘The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.’ Let’s see what he actually does, not just what he says.”

—Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center

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“Inaugural addresses are a time for inspiration and to chart a positive way forward. In substance and rhetoric, the speech was dystopian, divisive, and divorced from reality. His tone was more suited for his campaign rallies than for this moment, and he demonstrated perhaps the least amount of facility of delivering a prepared speech of any president since the invention of the teleprompter. Moreover, he made promises that will be almost impossible to keep. In every way, today marks a radical departure for our country. May God help us.”

—Kenneth Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore who contributed to speeches given at the last five Democratic conventions. The founder of Crosscut Strategies, he can be followed @kennethbaer

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“The problem with most inaugurals is that they overshoot — everyone wants to deliver Lincoln’s second or JFK’s. But those stand on their own — it’s like trying to launch a singing career by imitating Bruce Springsteen. There’s only one — and that’s fine. The key for any incoming president — and Trump especially — is to be authentic and original. Trump’s great strengths are authenticity and originality — nobody has reached the Oval Office in the television age delivering largely unscripted speeches until he came along. An inaugural does require some formality and structure, and so this will test Trump. But he’s done it before. When it counted during the campaign, Trump stuck to the pre-written text, and it didn’t drain his rhetoric too much of its punch. So he should stick with that approach: Every line should be subject to the question — does this sound like Trump? If not, get rid of it. Beyond that, he should keep it short and surprise his critics with graciousness and clues to his policy priorities — and he shouldn’t be afraid to show that he knows a lot more than people think he does.

[Trump’s] speech was like a fist. His message was populist from the get-go; invoking ‘America First’ could not be clearer in its intent and its reference to the neo-isolationism of his campaign and the prewar era. It was a bold statement of his core philosophy about the role of Washington and its responsibility to the people — if people were thinking he would soften, they just were reminded that he won’t. As rhetoric, it was clean, plain, and completely unadorned. He wasn’t hiding anything here — if he thought it, you heard it. ‘When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,’ was a good line. But it was mostly slogans, unconnected to each other. Not a lot of artistry there, but that wasn’t the goal. He wanted to be understood, not admired. He was understood.”

–Noam Neusner, co-founder and principal at 30 Point Strategies, and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush

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“This was a speech unlike any delivered by a president of either party in the modern era. As ambitious as it was short, the inaugural provided an uncomfortable, if awkward, rebuke to the hundreds of current and former officeholders surrounding him, and was filled with bold, forcefully delivered promises — bringing back jobs, etc. — that other newly elected presidents carefully avoid. As an appeal to those who elected him, it was effective. In short, Donald Trump has decided to be Donald Trump.”

—Matt Latimer, who served as deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush

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Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security


Read more from Yahoo News:

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