Speaking Well And Doing Great

By Michael Kazin
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Must a president be eloquent to be successful?

That question has sparked a heated quarrel between the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. The senator from New York stresses "results, not rhetoric," while her rival contends that a leader has to inspire Americans in order to produce "a new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darkness."

In politics as in poker, each candidate plays his or her strongest cards and suspects the opponent of bluffing. Yet the importance of this question shouldn't be lost amid the clamor of a hard-fought campaign. Political oratory is an ancient craft. In the nearly 2,400 years since Plato defined rhetoric as "winning the soul through discourse," effective speechmaking has been integral to the pursuit and the wielding of power. And the brief but contentious history of modern U.S. politics suggests that Obama has the better argument.

Most of the presidents who have changed the nation's course have been charismatic figures who persuaded Americans to share their larger vision. Stirring rhetoric helped them get their most cherished programs through Congress and leave their stamp on the future. Every president in the era of mass media who left office with his popularity intact and with followers eager to build on his legacy was a splendid speaker -- from Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

National candidates began to adopt an emotional, sermonic style in the 19th century, when evangelical Protestantism was the faith of most Americans. Journalists dissected political orations eagerly and at great length, assuming that a speech revealed the office-seeker's true character. Typically, they condemned insincerity while praising dramatic performances that seemed to come from the heart, if not the soul. Part of the reason William Jennings Bryan ran three competitive races for president was that reporters found his unabashedly sentimental speeches as thrilling as his followers did. The usually cynical H.L. Mencken even compared one of them to the finale of Beethoven's Third Symphony.

As the federal government grew in size and complexity through the 20th century, Americans increasingly expected presidents to make the enterprise of governing seem personal, comprehensible and uplifting. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first chief executives who understood this desire and worked hard to satisfy it. Both frequently left Washington to deliver speeches around the nation, and nearly every successor has followed their lead.

Yet only a few presidents have done so in a way that launched a new political era.

The difference between merely competent presidential rhetoric and rhetoric that has helped transform the nation brings to mind Mark Twain's famous line about the "difference between the almost-right word and the right word is . . . the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Particularly at a time of national crisis, the quality of oratory can make or break a president. Take the contrast between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before he ascended to the White House, Hoover was a national hero: a self-made millionaire who organized food deliveries to millions of refugees during World War I and won the 1928 election in a landslide. Unfortunately, he viewed speechmaking as more a duty to inform than an art that persuades; one associate quipped that listening to him was like taking a bath in a tub of ink.

This proved to be a severe handicap at the onset of the Great Depression. Hoover took quick and vigorous action to reverse the economic slide, including instituting a big tax cut and boosting spending on public works and relief for the unemployed. But his dour style gave Americans the false impression that he neither understood nor cared about their plight.

FDR defeated Hoover in 1932 without advocating a real break from his predecessor's policies. In fact, the Democratic platform that year actually called for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures" by 25 percent. But Roosevelt was a master at conveying hope and confidence. Although the millions of Americans who were jobless, homeless and hungry had a good deal more to fear than fear itself, his first inaugural address began to knit a close bond between the public and its president.

FDR's warm, avuncular tone in subsequent performances -- both formal speeches and his "fireside chats" -- convinced Americans that such programs as the WPA and Social Security were acts of common decency instead of steps toward socialism, as his critics on the right described them.

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