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In a nutshell, advice for Obama

Six words to inspire the nation. The heart of the matter: Concision.

The power of 2 x 3: It's a 'little haiku of citizenship,' says Joseph Torsella, head of the National Constitution Center, of the call for six-word aphorisms to inspire the next presiident. So far, more than 1,800 people have logged on to give it a shot.  (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
The power of 2 x 3: It's a 'little haiku of citizenship,' says Joseph Torsella, head of the National Constitution Center, of the call for six-word aphorisms to inspire the next presiident. So far, more than 1,800 people have logged on to give it a shot. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Six little words can speak volumes.

Nothing to fear but fear itself.

Franklin Roosevelt said that.

To bind up the nation's wounds.

That was Lincoln, at his second inaugural, with the end of the Civil War in sight.

Pay any price, bear any burden.


Of course, like his predecessors, Barack Obama will employ hundreds if not thousands of words when he addresses the nation upon being sworn in as president on Jan. 20. But between now and Jan. 5, the National Constitution Center and SMITH online magazine are asking Americans to offer the next president an idea, a turn of phrase, a slogan, some guidance - and to do it in a half-dozen words.

"A little haiku of citizenship," said NCC president and CEO Joseph Torsella. "We've been surprised by the things we've done from time to time that touch a nerve - this has been one of them."

Six words is not very long. Only as long as this sentence.

But so far more than 1,800 people have logged onto and posted their reflections to "Address America: Six Words to Inspire a Nation." The best entries will be delivered to Obama's speechwriters.

If the lengthening list of submissions constitutes a portal into the national psyche, then people seem to be more optimistic than war and recession might dictate:

The nation can sustain the impossible.


We will all overcome this together.


Endless revolution, ageless values, boundless future.

Some writers seek the profound:

Alone, we are Americans, together - America.

Or celebrate the election of a black president:

The first but not the last.

Some scold:

Always remember America is your boss.

Others doubt:

I hereby abolish the middle class.

Some are inscrutable:

No New Orleans, no American culture.

Some writers use their meager allotment of words to complain that they need more:

Six words can't solve complex issues.

Some advocate specific improvements:

Free, quality education for all Americans.

That last would be particularly worthy, since some people can't count to six:

Under New Management.

Why six words? Why not five? Or seven or nine?

Because of Ernest Hemingway.

The story goes - and it's only a story - that Hemingway was having lunch in a restaurant, or maybe it was a drink in a bar, with several other writers. They bet Papa that he couldn't write a story in a mere six words.

Hemingway quickly scribbled:

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

Or supposedly he did.

"It's unprovable, but it doesn't much matter," said Larry Smith, editor and cofounder of SMITH, a Web site for writers and artists. "There is a little magic in six."

Six words is enough for a full sentence, but not enough to be paunchy. It's sufficient to carry a complete thought, while imposing concision. Six has balance, but also flexibility, allowing for two- and three-word pairings.

Placing Address America on the Internet, as opposed to collecting hand-written submissions at the NCC, opened the project to everyone.

Jo Ann Smith Daniels, a 62-year-old retired sales clerk in Fort Worth, Texas, said she liked the challenge of crafting a meaningful sentence from so few words. She was thinking about Obama when she wrote, This nation can sustain the impossible.

"If he can inspire us," she said, "then maybe we can inspire him."

Address America is an incarnation of what has proven to be an intriguing and enduring idea. Two years ago, Smith, of Moorestown, decided to invite SMITH readers to submit six-word memoirs. The story of their life in one short sentence. An unexpected 24,000 people took him up on the offer, including Stephen Colbert, Richard Ford, Deepak Chopra and Moby.

The resulting book, Not Quite What I Was Planning, became a best-seller. A second book, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, is due before Valentine's Day.

Last summer, NCC executives contacted Smith about their interest in creating a project based on storytelling. They wanted to convey the idea at the heart of the center, that democracy relies on millions of people, each writing their own sentence in the story of the nation.

Smith brought the NCC his six-word expertise.

Oddly, some of history's most famous inaugural phrases wouldn't qualify, because they run just over six words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, from Lincoln. And, If not us, who? And if not now, when? from Reagan. Others, like the five-word eloquence of A thousand points of light, from the elder Bush, fall just shy of six words.

George Washington gave the shortest inaugural speech, a speedy 135 words in 1793. William Henry Harrison gave the longest, a windy 8,445 words in 1841. Harrison spoke for well over an hour in miserably cold weather, sans overcoat or hat. He died a month later. Of pneumonia.

Everyone who submits a sentence to Address America will see it on the Web site. The authors of the six best submissions will win copies of Not Quite What I Was Planning, and one-year memberships in the NCC - and have their words forwarded to Obama's staff. One grand-prize winner will receive a leather-bound volume of the Constitution.

Last week, as he read through the postings, Smith noticed that the project was developing its own categories - faith, optimism, a somberness that befits the times.

"I think it works," he said. "It's back to basics, some quintessential American themes. . . . You see hope."