THE PLANK JANUARY 16, 2009
We don't usually think about President William Henry Harrison, but the one time he does surface in the popular imagination is around inauguration time. That's because his inauguration speech was so long that it ultimately killed him.
But Harrison has affected our lives more than we might think. Among other things, he's the father of campaign kitsch, right-wing cultural populism in the United States, substance-free, character-based presidential campaigns, and the word "booze." What's more, a few hours playing with Speechwars.com, this graphical archive of past inauguration speeches, reveals that Harrison was--in terms of presidential inauguration vocabulary at least--far ahead of his time. (On the site, you can also see how presidents have stopped using the word "republic" since the New Deal, and how they only started talking about women in modern times.)
Harrison, it turns out, was the first to overuse the word "liberty," unmatched until almost 165 years later by George W. Bush; the first to overuse the word "American," presaging the freak-outs over immigration and "Americanism" during the Gilded Age (and, subsequently, our modern obsession with the word); the first to talk about our "dreams"--which presidents didn't do again until Richard Nixon made it popular; and even the first to repeatedly invoke Thomas Jefferson, a tic that has become increasingly common since Reagan.
So if you find your head spinning this weekend--and you begin asking yourself how the past eight years could have happened--I encourage you to pause and consider the way Harrison's legacy has lowered the bar in American politics. And, though he may be trying to top Lincoln, it's lowered the bar for Obama-as-speechmaker too.