President Barack Obama delivers his inagural address after taking the oath as the 44th U.S. President at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., today.

MCT Select

President Barack Obama delivers his inagural address after taking the oath as the 44th U.S. President at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., today.

Speechwriters weigh in on Obama

Steamboat insiders evaluate new president's inaugural address


— History will tell whether President Barack Obama's inaugural address was the kind of enduring speech that, in retrospect, defines an administration.

But Steamboat Springs residents Sureva Towler and Steve Hofman aren't inclined to wait that long to weigh in. Both watched the speech with keen professional interest. Towler, an author who spends her winters in Lawrence, Kan., and Hofman, who runs a consulting business from Steamboat, are former Washington insiders who have helped craft important political speeches themselves.

The two had different takes on Obama's address.

Hofman found it ordinary. Towler thought it was remarkable for its pointed allusions to the perceived failures of the administration of former President George W. Bush. Hofman didn't see it that way. Towler thought Obama succeeded in amplifying the theme of "one America." Hofman thought the speech lacked the pithy phrase that would make it stand out for decades to come - Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," for example.

"A significant question is if there is a larger theme or phrase that people will look back on five or 10 or more years from now," Hofman said. "I don't think there was anything in the speech that people will remember."

He was assistant secretary of labor in the George H.W. Bush administration when he drafted the nominating speech his boss, Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, would give on behalf of President Bush at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Towler was a speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee during the John F. Kennedy administration when, in 1961, she wrote an important speech for Sargent Shriver as he became the first director of the Peace Corps.

Her primary role with the DNC was to assemble talking points approved by the Democratic leadership and compose draft speeches for the large number of freshmen congressman who had been swept into office in 1960 with President Kennedy.

Towler, who describes herself as being "violently partisan" in favoring Democrats, said Obama's address Tuesday took her back to the Kennedy Inauguration in the way that it called for unity among Americans. However, she interpreted phrases in the speech: "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests : has surely passed," and "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," and "We will restore science to its rightful place," as strong rejections of the last administration.

"What a fierce repudiation of everything Bush stood for," Towler said. "I was struck by how strong it was."

Hofman did not interpret Obama's remark about "protecting narrow interests" as targeting the past administration as much as the past 30 to 40 years of policy. He said Obama's rhetoric at least, in contrast to his voting record in the Senate, suggests he will be a centrist. The proof, he added, will lie in his decision making.

Hofman said that when he wrote a first draft of Martin's nominating speech in 1992, he deliberately composed a weak speech with the exception of what he hoped would be a standout line in the heart of the text.

"I wrote it at the beach, and we had to take a fax machine with us in those days. My wife was not very happy," he recalled. Secretary Martin "faxed back that the draft was not very good, but she circled the line."

That thematic grab line, aimed at then-Gov. Bill Clinton, was, "You can't be one kind of man and another kind of president."

Towler's memorable speech, penned to help usher in a new era of American service to developing nations, placed its prophetic line at the beginning.

"The first line read 'The war on poverty has begun,'" Towler recalled. "I look at it now, and I think how presumptuous it was."

However you choose to judge an inaugural address, Hofman said, don't fault the speaker for failing to form an emotional connection with the audience. When a sprawling outdoor crowd has been standing in the cold since dawn, and heavy gloves muffle its applause, few speakers can rise to that standard.

"It's almost impossible," he said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.