The Short and Long of Inaugural Addresses

For his sake -- and that of his country -- George W. Bush should be brief


In the end, there are only two types of inaugural speeches worth discussing: short ones and long ones.

For the sake of the country and—if the past is prologue—for his own health, here's hoping George W. Bush is a big enough man to go short.

Press accounts say that Dubya's yammering threatens to clock in at a sitcom-length 17 minutes, which may well be 15 minutes longer than necessary on a cold and possibly snowy D.C. morning. After all, it's not as if the inaugural is magical speech; nothing will or won't happen in his second term based on how long he flaps his gums on January 20.

It was another George—George Washington—who set the benchmark for brevity. His Second Inaugural Address, delivered in 1793, runs under 150 words. And even at that short length, it's worth noting that his spiel suffers from more throat clearing than a tuberculosis ward. Indeed, the Father of His Country pads the material like a desperate undergrad squeezing in the margins on a term paper to fulfill a page-length requirement. See for yourself:

I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.

Got that? If he screws up, he's willing to take the heat—and do the time if he actually breaks the law.

Still, in the annals of presidential history, Washington's relatively laconic Second Inaugural is clearly one of the reasons why he is still first in the hearts of his countrymen.

The longest inaugural speech was delivered, ironically enough, by the president who served the shortest time: William Henry Harrison, whose main qualifications for the nation's highest office were that he had killed a lot of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe and elsewhere when that was as important as buying votes with prescription drug plans and, more important, that he was not Martin Van Buren.

In March 1841, during a brutally cold and snowy day, Harrison delivered a stem-winder that lasted almost two hours (and that was the trimmed-down version, edited by legendary legislative windbag Daniel Webster, most famous now for the giant size of his head and for helping to inspire the American version of the loathsome genre in which a smooth talker outfoxes the devil himself, a motif that has hopefully seen its final iteration in the Al Pacino stinkeroo The Devil's Advocate). Harrison was 68 at the time—he was the oldest man to be sworn into office until Ronald Reagan came along in 1981—but determined to live up to the rough-and-tumble image on which he'd campaigned. So he not only gave his inaugural address outside, he reportedly refused to wear a topcoat or hat.

History has, of course, little noted nor long remembered anything that "Tippecanoe" said that day. And now that we've placed a man on the moon, defeated the Soviet Union, and seen an end to the scourge that was Crossfire, there's no reason to remedy that here. What did Harrison manage to say in his maxi-length disquisition? Those whose Ambien prescriptions have run out are encouraged to go here to find out. The rest of us can just solace in knowing that Harrison caught pneumonia because he talked too long in bad weather and died after serving only a month in office.

George W. Bush, arguably the savviest politician—and certainly the most underrated—to occupy the White House since Bill Clinton, won't fall victim to pneumonia. But for his sake—and ours—here's hoping he doesn't fall victim to longwindedness.