A lot is being made, and justifiably so, out of a number of previous Inaugural Addresses.  Just the other night, all the Obamas read, on the north wall of the temple in which the 16th President’s memory is enshrined forever, the model to which the President Elect has already often referred: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  And inspiration has also been mined  from those delivered by FDR and Ronald Reagan

In yesterday’s New York Times, Richard Reeves described the situation he considers to have confronted JFK and America on 20 January 1960, and wrote about “Kennedy Words, Obama’s Challenge.”

But, at least as I remember it —although, admittedly, Mr. Reeves has the advantage a few years and some billions of brain cells on me— the situation didn’t seem quite so dire as he describes.   Even though the election had been very close (to put it mildly….and generously), the country was caught up in the media frenzy surrounding the charismatic (a word they had even forged the word for him) young candidate and his photo- and telegenic family. 

America was anyway emerging from the comfortable and unprecedently prosperous torpor of the 1950s — which, conveniently for the Kennedy image makers, had coincided with the two terms of an avuncular and restrained leader.  The missile gap that scared many people (who were already spooked by the undeniable presence of Sputnik overhead every several hours) had, in fact, been manufactured by the Kennedy Team for the purposes of undermining Vice President Nixon’s strong suit of national defense.  It had been useful as a campaign issue —not least because it came as a surprise— but it hadn’t worked its way into the national consciousness.

So, although Mr. Reeves paints a doleful picture of a nation on tenterhooks and a world on the brink, the Kennedy Inaugural was, rather, a snowy celebration of youth and vigor (aka “vigah”) and optimism.  In his Inaugural address, the young new President spoke eloquently and boldly about the big stick he was prepared to carry; but at that particular point in time it didn’t seem likely that he would actually have to carry it anywhere.  It was only after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs and his disastrously misjudged meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, that he was forced to put some teeth in his fighting words and pick a patch of sand in which to draw a line.  The patch he picked was Vietnam.

 Mr. Reeves covers the Addresses’ last minute, begrudged, and begrudging nod to the civil rights movement.

The new president’s civil rights adviser, a young man named Harris Wofford, complained to Kennedy, pointing out that 24 hours before the inauguration, 23 Negro students had begun a sit-in at segregated lunch counters in Richmond, Va., the old capital of thre Confederacy, 100 miles south of the Capitol of the United States.

“Okay,” said Kennedy, who added the words so that one sentence declared that Americans were: “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed to at home and around the world.”

In a world in which style was newly predominant —and would shortly be triumphant— JFK’s Inaugural was a monument to style even before he said a word.   “The temperature was 10 degrees below freezing,” Mr. Reeves reminds us.  “The young President made his first statement by not wearing an overcoat as he sat next to his 70-year old predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenower, who was bundled in a great coat, scarf and top hat.”

And, as Mr. Reeves points out, it wasn’t so much what the new President said as the way that he said it:

The words rang, still do in television excerpts and classrooms. Kennedy was a man who knew that in his new job, words were often more important than deeds. Few people would remember whether he balanced the budget. Almost all Americans would remember his lines, particularly, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Paradoxically, one of Kennedy’s worries that day was that he would be overshadowed by another speaker, the poet Robert Frost. When Frost, who was 86, asked to speak, Kennedy’s first reaction was: “He’s a master of words I have to be sure he doesn’t upstage me …” The President-elect suggested he recite an old poem, but Frost insisted on writing a new one. The day’s sun and the wind made it impossible for the old man to handle his papers and, in the end, he did recite from memory an older poem titled “The Gift Outright.”

So, it was Kennedy’s day and Kennedy’s words that are remembered.

Remembered they are; as they deserve to be. It was a striking and stirring moment — one I experienced at first hand along with several other Georgetown freshmen, among the freezing crowds at the foot of Capitol Hill.  

But I don’t think I’m being myopic (or at least not just being myopic) when I argue that RN’s First Inaugural is a speech —or at least significant parts of which— that stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of the genre.

It was timely; it was topical; it was tough-minded; it was, in some passages, sublimely eloquent.  And it was, incidentally, well delivered.  And —given that it was Nixon’s Inaugural Address— it was even well received in the media.

Now, for reasons we know, quoting Nixon in any kind of  favorable context is out of fashion.   So his First Inaugural has been bypassed by the talking heads and pundits in the copious advice they have tendered to the President Elect.

While Mr. Reeves has to work  hard to manufacture an ominous context for JFK’s Inaugural, RN’s was truly troubled.  Although the smoke was no longer visibly rising from the ruins of the riot-ravaged U Street Corridor in the very shadow of  the Capitol, and although the heavy police and military presence managed to keep the protests to a minimum of disruption and violence, RN was addressing a nation that was little less than ravaged. 

Americans had begun the previous year with Tet; they had endured the assassinations of Dr. King and RFK; they had been devastated by domestic violence, bombings, and killings; they had watched the campuses erupt and shut down; and the had seen the Vietnam death and casualty lists grow daily and weekly.   

 RN began by establishing, first and beyond doubt, that he intended to seek and bring peace.

For the first time, because the people of the world want peace, and the leaders of the world are afraid of war, the times are on the side of peace.     

Eight years from now America will celebrate its 200th anniversary as a nation. Within the lifetime of most people now living, mankind will celebrate that great new year which comes only once in a thousand years—the beginning of the third millennium.   

What kind of nation we will be, what kind of world we will live in, whether we shape the future in the image of our hopes, is ours to determine by our actions and our choices.   

 His next words are, aside from his name and dates, the only words on his tombstone in Yorba Linda:

 The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.

That was his goal for himself and his administration, and he stated it clearly in his Inaugural Address.  The goal of the peacemaker is easily stated; but the role of the peacemaker is hard.  For the next six years RN would follow a long hard road, that would be marked by some signal successes and many serious disappointments, that led him to Beijing, Moscow, Paris, Saigon, Tehran, Lahore, Jakarta, Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus, Amman, Tel Aviv, and many other places.

Throughout 1968 America’s campuses had become a shambles.  They were characterized by disgraceful displays of spinelessness  by adults and self-indulgent and self-serving grandstanding by students.  They were violently —and vulgarly— anti-Nixon, but Nixon, in his Inaugural, addressed them directly, respectfully, and generously:

We see the hope of tomorrow in the youth of today. I know America’s youth. I believe in them. We can be proud that they are better educated, more committed, more passionately driven by conscience than any generation in our history.

Moving to a higher plane, RN identified the real, underlying, cause of much of America’s —and Americans’— unhappiness.

 Standing in this same place a third of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a Nation ravaged by depression and gripped in fear. He could say in surveying the Nation’s troubles: “They concern, thank God, only material things.”     

  Our crisis today is the reverse.     

  We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth.     

  We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them.     

  To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.     

  To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.     

  When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.     

RN then turned to the section that, for me (but in RN’s formulation) transcends prose and touches the poetry of truly great politics.  His words have an almost Quakerish sweetness and simplicity and immediacy.  They also spoke a truth that America, tired of the shouting and the roiling and the vulgarity and the violence, recognized as true.

  Greatness comes in simple trappings.     

  The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.     

  To lower our voices would be a simple thing.     

  In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.     

  We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.     

  For its part, government will listen. We will strive to listen in new ways—to the voices of quiet anguish, the voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart—to the injured voices, the anxious voices, the voices that have despaired of being heard.     

  Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.     

  Those left behind, we will help to catch up.     

  For all of our people, we will set as our goal the decent order that makes progress possible and our lives secure.     

  As we reach toward our hopes, our task is to build on what has gone before—not turning away from the old, but turning toward the new.     

These were noble sentiments expressed with noble words.  Unless he has already consulted and pondered them, it’s too late for the President Elect to use them as a model for this morning’s Inaugural Address. 

But today is also the first day of the rest of his first term.  Considering the shaken nation is will be leading starting this afternoon, the newly inaugurated 44th POTUS could do far worse than spending some little time thinking about what RN said, and how he said it.

Perhaps President Obama could follow another of RN’s precedents by building a fire in the Lincoln Sitting Room late tonight or some night this week, sitting back in a comfortable chair, putting his feet up on an ottoman, and —with a pencil for marking purposes near at hand—  picking up the text of RN’s First Inaugural Address:

We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them.     

  To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit….

(For the text of RN’s First Inaugural Address, look here.  The audio of RN’s First Inaugural Address can be heard in full here. For The New York Times‘ interesting interactive chart including the text of each Inaugural Address of every POTUS —including quantitative deconstructions of the numbers of times words were used— look here.)