Obama’s speech: An inaugural past not hard to surpass

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US presidents have delivered 55 inaugural addresses, and if there is a single word that best describes most of these speeches, it may be “stupefying.”

Yes, some of the most memorable political phrases in American history have come from inaugurals. “With malice toward none, with charity for all….” (Lincoln). “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (FDR). “Ask not what your country can do for you….” (JFK).

But the ones you learned about in high school are pretty much it. Many of the others drone on, dwelling on Roman history or forgotten legislative quarrels. Their prose generally is not good. Verbs wander about in search of proper subjects. Bad metaphors and gangs of adjectives block the way.

For President-elect Obama, the good news here is that on Jan. 20, he may find it easy to outshine many of his predecessors. His ability to communicate, after all, seems to be one of his political strengths.

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