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From Carter to Obama: Covering Inaugural Addresses With the NewsHour

President Ronald Reagan addresses party-goers assembled in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History’s at the Inaugural Ball in January 1981. Mrs. Reagan is at his side. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

When it comes to inaugurals, the circumstances often outweigh the event. The weather is cold, the incoming presidents and their families all seem to have mastered the same genteel wave — famously employed by international royalty and pageant queens — and the speeches tend to be, well, less than exciting.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Since the NewsHour began broadcasting in 1975, the program has covered nine inaugurations. Some have been better, and warmer, than others, but all have been memorable in their own way.

Looking back over the years, we can recall some of the better parades, the fashion and the balls (who can forget George H.W. Bush breaking it down with Lee Atwater in 1989?). But for us, it’s all about the speeches. And not all speeches are created, or delivered, equal. We look back at those speeches we covered and our reactions to them.

Jimmy Carter

In 1977, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report (from its amazing, Aztec-inspired studio) covered its first inaugural address, delivered by President Jimmy Carter. Carter’s speech is probably best remembered for its brevity — it’s still one of the shortest in inaugural history. With its solemn references to the words of Micah, delivered in Carter’s unique Georgia twang, the words were more like a sermon than a presidential address.

Robert MacNeil, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Roger Wilkins dissected the speech on that evening’s broadcast.

Ronald Reagan

Four years later, on Jan. 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan delivered the party rock anthem of conservative speeches from the western front of the Capitol (he was the first president to do so). The speech is the sort of thing tea party types like to recall while waving Gadsden flags.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan famously said. “We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around.”

That address — the gold standard of modern political poetry — is as much of a conservative battle cry today as it was on that January day when the Gipper delivered it.

On the NewsHour, Allan Ryskind, longtime editor of the conservative Human Events magazine, found Reagan’s speech inspirational. Ben Wattenberg of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority called Reagan “a consummate actor in the nicest sense of the word.”

Reagan’s second inaugural address was delivered indoors as a bitter cold front swept the nation and Washington experienced record low temperatures. The speech, while good enough in its own right, did not measure up to Reagan’s first address and the visuals made it look more like an overcrowded press conference than the quadrennial event it was.

That night on the NewsHour, former Nixon speechwriter Ray Price and former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen broke it down.

George H.W. Bush

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, his speech opened with a prayer. He spoke of repairing the relationships with then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and then Speaker of the House Jim Wright, both Democrats.

Bush’s delivery and tone were measured throughout, his voice only rising on one occasion — in reference to his planned escalation in the war on drugs. The 41st president’s speech was sort of the Goldilocks of inaugural addresses, not too hot, not too cold, but just Bush.

That night, Mark Shields, he of NewsHour lore, and David Gergen, formerly the editor of the US News and World Report, reacted to the speech with Robert MacNeil.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton’s speech in 1993 was not markedly different from any other inaugural address. He used the platform on the west side of the Capitol to address inequality, international relations and, of course, cite from scripture.

That evening, the NewsHour had a full house to talk about the speech.

President Clinton’s second inaugural address was largely overshadowed by the clouds of political divisiveness and scandal. Clinton delivered his speech the day before the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was sanctioned for an ethical violation. A year later, Clinton would have to address the American people with a scandal of his own — his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Still Clinton’s speech was par for the course as far as inaugurals are concerned.

After the speech, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal broke it down.

George W. Bush

On a rainy day in 2001, George W. Bush took office after coming out on top in one of the most bizarre and fascinating elections of the last century. Bush addressed a divided country and focused his speech on unity and pressing forward with the brand of compassionate conservatism he had campaigned upon.

The NewsHour assembled a panel of historians and commentators to discuss the speech with Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer.

If the country was divided when George W. Bush gave his first inaugural speech, the second inaugural address came under even more divisive circumstances. The country was still mourning losses from terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. We were engaged in fighting two wars and an incumbent president had just won a bitterly negative campaign. Bush’s speech focused mostly on foreign policy and his tone was measured but assertive.

David Brooks and Mark Shields talked about the speech and the presidency of George W. Bush that afternoon and evening with Jim Lehrer.

Barack Obama

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president, the country tuned in. Record numbers attended the inauguration in Washington, D.C., and watched on TV. Standing at the podium on the western side of the Capitol, the newly sworn-in president delivered a speech filled with lofty rhetoric.

And Jim Lehrer, David Brooks and Mark Shields discussed the speech and the future for the new president.

This year, Mr. Obama will deliver his second inaugural address. There are no promises the speech will be memorable but we can assure you, we’ll be talking about it on The NewsHour.

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