How de Blasio’s inaugural speech could have been so much better

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is sworn in for his second term Jan. 1 on the steps of City Hall.

How de Blasio’s inaugural speech could have been so much better

Boring in the biting cold: How de Blasio’s inaugural speech could have been so much better
January 1, 2018

Legend has it that pneumonia killed President William Henry Harrison a month after giving a 105-minute speech on a cold and blustery Inauguration Day. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wasn’t taking any chances at his second inauguration Monday. With a temperature of 18 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill of 6, de Blasio ushered in his second term with a breezy, 13-minute speech in front of City Hall, focusing on New York exceptionalism and the successes of his first term.

City & State asked an expert to critique de Blasio’s address. Victoria Wellman, co-founder of The Oratory Laboratory, a creative agency for public speakers, said that even with the speech, the story of the day was the cold.

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“I kept thinking, why isn’t he wearing a scarf?” she said. “He looked so exposed!” But Wellman said de Blasio actually used the weather to his advantage.

Bill de Blasio: “I’ve got a question for you upfront here, and I want to hear what you think. I can do a very brief speech if you prefer. (The crowd cheers.) OK, the people have spoken.”

Victoria Wellman: “He knew it was going to be cold, and so I think the way he opened was actually great. It’s always really effective to acknowledge an audience right at the top by asking them a question and getting them involved. … Obviously he’s only written one speech and obviously it’s short, but it worked. He managed to pull off this idea that they have a little bit of a say in the matter, which I think was great.”

De Blasio: “Let me thank everyone for being here. You are the most distinguished frozen group of people I have ever spoken before.”

Wellman: “I think it worked really well. It was a little bit unexpected, but it’s not even a joke. It’s just truth, and sometimes truth is funny, you know? … Straight away, he felt comfortable because he made people laugh and he got people on his side in the freezing cold, and I think when you start like that, it makes all the difference.” 

De Blasio: “For too many years, our city descended into growing inequality, numbly allowing our social fabric to be torn more and more. The message conveyed to thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens was that they didn’t count. They could never get ahead. They didn’t really belong.”

Wellman: “I completely honestly got bored. … The reason that I tuned out was because he was talking about inequality in the city and the 1 percent versus the people who really make the city function, and giving them a chance. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that so many times that I just switched off. … It’s very hard for an individual to relate to a group of people if he’s not specific about who those people are and what they do and what their day is like. … Give us some examples of the people that you’re talking about, and the actual experiences they’re having, and where they interact maybe even with those one-percenters. Is it the garbage man who every morning picks up the rubbish that’s been thrown out by the incredibly lucky person who got this new toy for Christmas? I want those tangible, really vivid descriptions of specific people he’s talking about.”

De Blasio: “In our schools, in our workplaces, at the deli and in the subway, we live and let live. We have one common identity that makes us particularly proud. That gives us a special confidence, a certain swagger. And even if it isn’t stated out loud, somewhere inside, we know we live at the forward edge of history.”

Wellman: “He missed a chance to really explain what a New Yorker is and to really invoke the New Yorker experience. He almost went there. He mentioned swagger and he mentioned the subway … but what does it mean to be a New Yorker? Paint that picture for me. There are so many things that he could have said. … It’s a special thing to be a New Yorker, and I think it’s more than just being a list of adjectives.”

De Blasio: “We are the safest big city in America. My friends, we are safer than at any time since the 1950s. The most powerful commandment in human history is ‘thou shalt not kill.’ As of midnight, New York City reported the lowest number of homicides for any year since 1951.”

Wellman: “That’s a risk to go that far on the biblical reference, but to say that one of the commandments is ‘thou shalt not kill,’ and our murder rate is X, is a really strong, gettable statement. And he put it in the wrong place! I think it was great that he used it, but he really didn’t use it at the climax. … If you just say we’re one of the safest cities, that’s a little bit more nebulous. It didn’t land as well as when he said, ‘Our murder rate is the lowest it’s been since 1951.’ You cannot argue with that. That is pretty shocking and amazing. Then you (should) go into about how we’re the safest city. He just got it the wrong way around. It’s kind of annoying. But I like that he used that ‘thou shalt not kill.’ I think it was effective.” 

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Final thoughts? Wellman thought that de Blasio is getting better. “In his first address in 2014, I found him to be slightly awkward and goofy. When he talked about Chirlane and the kids, he would blow these kisses, and I was kind of grossed out by it. It was awkward the way he did it!” she said.

But this year, Wellman said he seemed like he’s done the job before. “More comfortable up there,” she said, “and he had a little bit more gravitas, and comfort, and presence than he did the first time.”

Jeff Coltin
Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.