The American presidential inaugural address is a singular event to a scholar of rhetoric and oratory like Herbeck, a former Fulton Debate Society coach who served the National Journal as a commentator on this past fall's presidential debates.
"It's a genre unto itself," said Herbeck, who noted the famously great inaugurals and their most memorable phrases jump readily to mind. "There's Lincoln's second ["with malice toward none, with charity for all"], Franklin Roosevelt's first ["the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"], Kennedy's ["ask not what your country can do for you"]."
This makes all the more daunting, he said, the task facing President-elect Bush, a less-than-stellar orator, considered by many an illegitimate claimant to the office, whose address to a sorely-divided nation will be measured, this time, against the standard of Abe Lincoln or FDR, not Al Gore.
"This is a tough one for him," said Herbeck, who said former Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richard's famous quip about the elder George Bush - that he was "born with a silver foot in his mouth" - might as readily be applied to the younger.
"He is not a good pure speaker," said Herbeck. "He's better one on one." But the inaugural will require Bush, as orator, "to try to place himself on the high altar of greatness.
"He's speaking to the ages. The comparison is not him versus Gore, but him versus Lincoln, him versus Roosevelt, him versus Kennedy."
Herbeck added: "He may surprise me. He certainly did in the debates."
The BC scholar notes his line of work leads him to deconstruct speeches when most other people are content to listen. "One of the hazards of coaching debate is that you become a professional critic," he said, adding, with a chuckle, "I'll reduce a church homily to three points. I can't enjoy sermons anymore."
To others scoring at home, he suggests three things to watch for in the Bush inaugural address: First is whether the speech "fits" the situation, as the greatest - Lincoln's second, at the close of the Civil War, FDR's First, at the height of the Depression - so notably did. Second is "eloquence, the ability to turn that signature phrase," he said, while third is the "ability to play the part of president, to enact the spirit of the presidency."
The inaugural address offers Bush the opportunity to start afresh on a grand stage, Herbeck said. "Everything else is prelude," he said. "We're through the appetizer and now at the presidential feast. Here's a chance for him to step up, and make us view him as we heretofore did not."
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