George Washington’s second inaugural address was just 135 words long. At the start of his second term, Abraham Lincoln took only 700 words to sum up the lessons and meaning of the Civil War. JFK’s soaring “ask not” speech, which inspired a generation, required just 1,366 words. By the standard of the greatest—and most succinct—presidential inaugural addresses, Barack Obama’s 2,096-word speech this week was relatively long-winded. But by the standard of the worst, he was the picture of verbal economy: William Howard Taft gassed on for 5,434 words in 1909, while back in 1841, William Henry Harrison set the high-water mark for bloviation, with 8,460 words. No one, of course, remembers what Taft or Harrison said; memorable speeches require precision as well as poetry. To be precise, a writer must think through what he wants to say—and ruthlessly prune the rest.
My 11 years at this magazine has been one long lesson in the challenges and value of brevity. As a much younger journalist, I was quite certain that I could say nothing worthwhile in less than 1,000 words, and sometimes went on for 4,000. How instructive it was, then, to be required to fit something semi-coherent into this space, which permits no more than 285. Impossible? Lincoln—not only a great president, but a transcendent writer—distilled all the poetry, resolve, and eloquence of the Gettysburg Address into 272 ringing words. Those words live on, unlike the bloated inaugural of President Harrison, whose oration trapped him—and his poor audience—on a bitterly cold, wet day for 1 hour and 45 minutes, after which he came down with pneumonia and died. I suspect there’s a lesson there.