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Tone for new era.

Byline: Lisa D. Welsh

WORCESTER - As the College of the Holy Cross' class of 2003 valedictorian, Jonathan E. Favreau's commencement speech was both reflective and lyrical.

In his words, the graduates were "A living testament ... to the success of an idea that has been carefully shaped by those who sat here before us, but one that will also remain eternally incomplete, always waiting to be strengthened by those who follow us."

Experts expect a similar tone today in the 44th president's inaugural address when, nearly six years after Mr. Favreau's speech on College Hill, his imprint will be on Capitol Hill in what some have called the speech of the century.

The theme for Inauguration Day is "A New Birth of Freedom," in honor of the 200th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's birth. Using President Lincoln's inaugural Bible, President-elect Barack Obama will take the oath of office at noon before giving his inaugural address. The parallels of the historic moment have already been alluded to in Mr. Obama's weekend train ride to Washington that followed the same route as Mr. Lincoln and in Sunday's speech that referred to both Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As Mr. Obama's chief speechwriter, Mr. Favreau helped write major speeches during the presidential race.

Mr. Obama's incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday on Fox News that Mr. Obama, who cleared his schedule the previous weekend to write out the bulk of his speech, will deliver words "heavily infused with this notion of responsibility and getting our country back on track."

Mr. Favreau, 27, is the youngest person to be selected as a president's director of speechwriting, but those who know him think he's up to the job. "Jon has been helping Obama write the inaugural speech and, as I understand it, the speech has been going back and forth between John and Obama for two months," said Caren Dubnoff, Mr. Favreau's Holy Cross thesis adviser and political science professor.

When Mr. Favreau e-mailed Mrs. Dubnoff in 2004 saying he "landed in Obama land" she said she wasn't surprised, nor was Stephanie E. Yuhl, his Holy Cross history professor and community service projects adviser.

"Jon has an extraordinary talent of taking very complex ideas and translating them into very accessible language so that everyone can formulate their own decision," said Ms. Yuhl.

"In his valedictorian speech you can see his sense of social justice and responsibility to each other," she said. "He and Obama are a good fit. They have a very cooperative, fluid kind of writing and working relationship."

The two professors have remained in contact with Mr. Favreau, although they haven't spoken to him in the last week.

"I expect he's working 18-hour days, going over the speech, polish and repolish," said Mrs. Dubnoff. "Millions are going to be watching and it is an important speech. He fully understands the weight of this."

According to Gino DiIorio, associate professor of theater and director of Clark's Theater Arts Program, Mr. Obama's speech needs to accomplish several things.

"The pressure is, of course, to come up with a great quote for the ages. For example, `Nothing to fear but fear itself,' " said Mr. DiLorio. "If the speech needs great dissection, it probably will not reverberate to any great extent."

"It's increasingly difficult to meet the standard of say, FDR or even JFK's inauguration, because the old style of oratory simply doesn't exist," he said. "The inauguration is a television event so the speech tends to be broader, safer and flatter. It's hard to come up with one phrase that resonates and comes to characterize a presidency."

After taking the oath of office, the inaugural speech is a president's first opportunity to set the tone of his presidency, although it is ceremonial rather than a policy speech.

"He's got so many issues he can address," said Chris Witt, executive speech coach and the author of "Real Leaders Don't Do PowerPoint," slated for release Feb. 3 by Crown Business.

"I expect we'll hear a lot about who we are as Americans, and then about unity. A lot of phrases starting out with the word `Together.' You'll also have a lot of `re' verbs like `recommit,' `renew,' and `rededicate,'" said Mr. Witt.

The speech will have its challenges.

"The speech will have to be something that can be applied to everyone. He can't focus on a single group," said Becky L. DiBiasio, associate professor of English at Assumption College.

"Also, he's coming in at a pretty down time and he has to be able to acknowledge that without sounding too negative. He has to be able to do that without blaming the opposition party and without making them the opposition," she said.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, the "President's Speech" of George Washington was addressed to the Congress almost as an afterthought because inaugural addresses are not required by the Constitution.

"The first time the American public learned what was in the inaugural address was when it was published in the newspaper, as much as three days later," said David R. Whitesell, curator of books. "Then it would appear on a silk broadsheet, attached on the wall in the public square or easily circulated. Pamphlets would come weeks later but

this was the practice starting with Washington."

Today, of course, the means of delivering an inaugural address is instantaneous, which brings its own set of challenges. Mr. Obama's speech will be the first inaugural address available on YouTube.

"The whole notion of the speech has changed dramatically because of the Internet," said Fern Johnson, professor of English at Clark University.

"Inaugural addressees originally were heard once and there's ongoing analysis of the authenticity of what has become historical documents," Ms. Johnson said. "Today with a click you can link to the text of the speech as it was given, as well as watch it and listen to it repeatedly."

"Barack Obama has the extra burden to inspire confidence in the American people," she said. "I can't wait to see what the speech writers and Obama have come up with. What they think is quotable and enduring. It's beyond a sound bite in a sense that it has to be from the perspective of President Obama, something very lofty but that is easily remembered, a headline - all of those things.

"They will be looking at it for years."

Contact Lisa Welsh by e-mail at


CUTLINE: Mr. Favreau
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 20, 2009
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