Presidential inauguration speech history

WASHINGTON - Presidential speechwriters are used to tight deadlines, but when Michael Gerson had a mild heart attack while writing George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech, he ended up writing the speech from his hospital bed.

After being checked into a hospital by the president’s doctor, Gerson received daily calls from Bush about the "increasing urgency" of the upcoming inauguration. Gerson was immobile for days and had stents put in his arteries, but he managed to finish the speech on time, because, as he said, "I found that they would not move the deadline for me."

This was just one the anecdotes, stories and recollections of past inaugurations told by a collection of journalists at NPR’s "Political Junkie Road Show" in Washington on Tuesday. The event was hosted by Neal Conan of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," and Ken Rudin, NPR's Political Junkie.

Paul Glastris, inaugural speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, gave insight into how carefully crafted a presidential speech has to be.

 "We would write sound bites. We actually planned what the sound bite was. And when the press would actually deliver a sound bite on their program, we just felt fantastic," Glastris said.

The speechwriters compared how well the two presidents stuck to their scripts.

Gerson said Bush wanted the speech days in advance to keep to an orderly process. Glastris said that when Clinton stood up to give a speech, he could go in any direction at any time.

"If he actually read my line, I was thrilled," Glastris said.

Rudin drew the audience in with historical tidbits about inaugurations past. Richard Nixon, inaugurated in 1969, never talked about Vietnam. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, there was no mention of a hostage crisis, even though, as he was speaking, 52 American hostages were being released in Iran.

"To be in Washington just a day before the inauguration, where both parties come together, albeit for a short amount of time, it's very, very exciting," Rudin said.

(Reach reporter Jess Miller at Jessica.miller@shns.com.)

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