The inauguration of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president this week reminds us that the inaugural speech is an important part of each quadrennial installation of a new leader, or confirmation of how a reelected one hopes to govern.
Lars Hinrichs, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Texas English Linguistics Lab, took a look at the inaugural speeches of two Texans, and compared them with what we heard earlier this week from President Biden.
In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated, having won the office in his own right after completing John F. Kennedy’s term. Johnson was dealing with a rapidly escalating Vietnam War and struggles for civil rights at home. In 2005, George W. Bush, having won reelection, was waging the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1965, Johnson said this:
“The next man to stand here will look out on a scene different from our own because ours is a time of change – rapid and fantastic change.”
George W. Bush said this in 2005:
“America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.“
Hinrichs points out the use of specific words in each speech.
“I ran these through a little computational analysis, and I got interested in the words ‘change’ in LBJ, and ‘human’ in George W. Bush,” Hinrichs said.
Though words like “Americans” and “freedom” or “liberty” usually appear most often in inaugural speeches, Hinrichs says he wasn’t looking for frequency.
“I controlled for how unique a term is in terms of comparison to the other texts – so compared to the other inaugural speeches,” he said.
Johnson’s speech includes the most mentions of the word “change.” Hinrichs says Biden emphasized one word more than others, too.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies – lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
Hinrichs says that while the word “lies” is prevalent in that excerpt of Biden’s inaugural address, “truth is the No. 1 keyword, the identifying keyword, that is both unique and frequent,” Hinrichs said.
Hinrichs says that for these presidents, the words they chose to use most often in their speeches say something about the world in which they were about to begin governing.
“I think they’re a great look at the core message,” he said.