Capture the moment in history and don't make it personal: Lessons in speech writing for Joe Biden from men who drafted past presidential inaugural addresses

  • President-elect Joe Biden's inaugural address is coming up on January 20th. It's a big moment that will be unlike any other in modern US history.
  • Biden has a well-established reputation of delivering remarks that lean on his own personal experiences with grief and tragedy. But his speech after taking the presidential oath of office will be something else entirely.
  • Experts in presidential speechwriting say Biden's task at the inauguration is to come up with just the right language to express far more than any singular policy promise, campaign pledge or personal anecdote.
  • "You want to have words to speak to the moment," said Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. "You want to be able to capture the mood of the country and speak in a way that resonates with the country." 
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Joe Biden is preparing next month to deliver a presidential inaugural speech unlike any other in modern US history.

It's a monumental oratorical challenge for a career Democratic politician who has given countless speeches as a senator, a vice-president, and three-time White House candidate. 

Sure, Biden has going for him a well-established reputation as a master eulogizer whose personal experience with grief and tragedy helped him become the perfect person to deliver memorial service goodbyes.  

But his public remarks after completing the famous 35-word presidential oath of office just after noon on January 20th are shaping up to be something totally different than anything like that, according to several experts in White House and inaugural speech making. 

These experts said the current unprecedented circumstances — the end of Donald Trump's presidency and the double whammy of a global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil — will force Biden to come up with just the right language to express far more than any singular policy promise, campaign pledge or personal anecdote.

"You want to have words to speak to the moment," said Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. "You want to be able to capture the mood of the country and speak in a way that resonates with the country." 

'You want elegance'

Biden is of course no stranger to delivering big speeches. He's been serving in public office for so long that his lengthy career became a regular Trump attack line of its own during the 2020 presidential campaign.

"My hunch is that at some point in 78 years Joe Biden has thought about what he might say if he were inaugurated as president of the United States," said Daniel Pink, a former speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. 

But this Biden speech is sure to be different than any of those previous ones.  

It'll be different from the one he gave earlier this summer in Delaware to accept his party's presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention. By its very nature, that partisan event was about exciting voters even as his campaign tried to portray their candidate as a uniting force against the divisive politics of the Trump era. 

It'll also be different than what Biden said upon defeating Trump in November with a pledge "to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn't see red states and blue states, only sees the United States."

When Biden delivers his inaugural address, Americans will be looking for signals of what's to come under his leadership. What they'll likely remember are a couple of lofty phrases.  

"You want elegance," Wehner said. "You want to be high, not low. You want to lift the mood of the country. You don't want to override it. You want to be hopeful and often you want to try and put America in this moment. You want to put this moment in the larger arch area of the American story." 

COVID-19 logistics and teleprompters

Biden's speech is also shaping up to have significant logistical differences from past inaugurals. 

While construction crews are busy right now building the inaugural platform on the grounds of the US Capitol, it's looking like there won't be anywhere close to the number of spectators who every four years line the streets of Washington and pack onto the National Mall to listen to the first remarks from the country's newly-sworn in leader. 

Last week, Biden told reporters he expects his upcoming ceremony to adhere to some of the same strict COVID-19 safety guidelines followed during his winning White House campaign and later during the transition period. That includes consulting with the organizers of the Democratic National Convention who helped turn that event into a virtual show featuring people speaking on their phones and desktop computers from across the country. 

Much remains under wraps as to the words Biden will actually use. The president-elect's team didn't respond to requests for comment about the inaugural address, including a request to identify the names of the people writing the remarks. 

One thing is clear: Biden is surrounded by qualified speech writers. Mike Donilon took on the title last month of chief strategist to the president-elect after serving on the 2020 campaign in a role that included helping to write the DNC speech. Biden also counts among his personal wordsmiths Vinay Reddy, Carlyn Reichel, Michael Sheehan, and Jon Meacham, a presidential historian who the New York Times reported helped to craft campaign speeches and his remarks accepting the Democratic party nomination.

And even if the words Biden is supposed to say sing like Shakespeare, it's anyone's guess how much he sticks to the script. The next president is well known for ad-libbing, bringing up personal anecdotes about grief and loss, and for using awkward non-sequitur like "anyway." 

There's a reason why the Washington Post in August wrote about the running joke that Biden's speech writers have one of the most challenging jobs in American politics because their boss doesn't like teleprompters and can easily veer off course.

Beat this: 'With malice toward none'

At this stage of the transition, it's about time for Biden and his team to get cracking on his speech.

Bill Clinton combed through about 50 drafts of his first presidential inaugural address, pulling all-nighters and practicing his elocution as the incoming commander-in-chief prepped for his big 1993 speech.

Barack Obama edited and edited too, frequently pushing back on his speechwriter's words. But the country's first Black president also amazingly only took one try at practicing his historic 2009 inaugural address before delivering it. 

"It was just the type of thing that the president wanted to put to bed in plenty of time so that we could pull off a smooth inaugural," said speechwriter Cody Keenan. He described a timeline for preparing the speech starting in mid-December as excited campaign staffers rushed to move their lives from Chicago to Washington and ultimately wrapped up by Christmas. 

"I think we finished up remarkably early for us," Keenan said. 

Speech writing experts also cautioned that Biden will need to be careful about getting too personal with his speech. The new president is considered a master of delivering spoken words about grief and loss and personalizing the stories of Americans by relating them via Scripture and his early childhood upbringing in Pennsylvania coal country. 

But that kind of approach has fallen flat in the past.

For example, Jimmy Carter in 1977 offered up an anecdote from a high school teacher during his inaugural address that pundits said at the time wasn't up to the historical significance of that speech, according to David Kusnet, a former Clinton chief speechwriter who drafted his 1993 speech.

"Public rhetoric has become much more personal over the years," Kusnet said. "But Franklin Roosevelt didn't talk about overcoming polio, John F. Kennedy didn't talk about being the first Catholic to serve as president or about his own service and injury in World War II." 

Unlike campaign speeches or even presidential acceptance speeches, an inaugural address shouldn't be packed with personal reminiscences, anecdotes or "anything in a confessional nature," Kusnet said. 

"They tend not to be that personal," he said.

Presidential speechwriting experts said that for Biden to hit a home run in his inaugural he needs to paint a picture of the current moment he's facing — one that shows what he expects to wade through as a leader. 

This is how past inaugural speeches get remembered. It's why Abraham Lincoln's remarks from 1865 as the Civil War approached its end — "With malice toward none with charity for all" — are etched on the interior wall of the Washington DC monument to the country's 16th president. It's why school children learn about John F. Kennedy's impassioned plea in 1961 to "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."  

And it's also why Trump will have a place in the history books for his 2017 inauguration pledge to stop the "American carnage" causing violence and poverty in inner cities.

"It tells you," Wehner said, "that there's something about words that live in people's memories and hearts."

 

 

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