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Explained: Who were the minds behind US President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech?

The Office of Speechwriting is a presidential department in the White House, responsible for researching and writing the President’s speeches.

Written by Mehr Gill | New Delhi |
January 20, 2021 12:21:19 am
Joe Biden, US President's inaugural speech, US President’s speech, Biden's speech, world news, Indian express explainedVinay Reddy

On Wednesday, new US President Joe Biden will deliver his inaugural address laying out the agenda for his administration. The speechwriting team helping him shape the draft is led by an Indian-American, Vinay Reddy, who was speechwriter for the Biden-Harris campaign and previously served as chief speechwriter when Biden was Vice President in Barack Obama’s second term.

What it’s about

The inaugural address has been a tradition since George Washington became the first President on April 30, 1789. In his first inaugural address, he referred to the “sacred fire of liberty” and a “new and free government”. For his second term in 1793, Washington’s speech of 135 words remains the shortest ever. William Henry Harrison’s speech in 1841 was the longest at 8,455 words; it lasted two hours.

The White House Historical Association notes that inaugural speeches set the tone for the incoming administration. While sometimes they are intended to persuade, at other times Presidents have chosen to speak “directly to the nation’s concerns”. In 1961, John F Kennedy made a call for public service during his inaugural address when he said, “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Biden takes over during what is being described as one of the tensest moments in American history. Commentators have compared the moment to 1933 when F D Roosevelt took oath during the Great Depression (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said), and to 1861, during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln appealed to his “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” to not be enemies but friends.

Speechwriter’s role

The Office of Speechwriting is a presidential department in the White House, responsible for researching and writing the President’s speeches.

In a discussion session in 2019 on “translating presidential ideas into words”, Sarada Peri, one of Obama’s speechwriters, said the “audience is the world of any speech”, while her speechwriting colleague Kyle O’Connor said it was important to capture the President’s “style and voice”.

Another speechwriter, referred to as Obama’s “mind reader”, is Jon Favreau, who was just 27 when he helped shape the 2009 inaugural address in which Obama, in an echo of Kennedy half a century earlier, called for a “new era of responsibility” urging Americans to recognise “that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

A temporary exhibit organised by the John F Kennedy Library and Museum in 2009 notes that some of his instructions to his speechwriter in 1961, Ted Sorensen, included to “avoid pessimism and partisanship,” and to “read the other presidential inaugurals”.

Biden’s speechwriters

The content of Biden’s inaugural address is being overseen by Mike Donilon, who has been his long-time adviser, along with presidential historian and biographer Jon Meacham who is also helping shape the draft. During his first remarks as President-elect, Biden spoke about the need to “rebuild the soul of America, to rebuild the backbone of this nation…”. An article in The New York Times notes that Biden’s reliance on a historian is in sharp contrast to Donald Trump’s “lack of interest” in the past.

Reddy, an alumnus of the Ohio State University College of Law, is Biden’s director of speechwriting. Reddy earned his bachelor’s degree from Miami University and double-majored in political science and philosophy. According to a report in Telangana Today, Reddy was born and brought up in the US; his family hails from the village of Pothireddypeta in Telangana.

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