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Speaking Well And Doing Great

Three decades later, a new generation of conservatives came to view Reagan as their own FDR. Reagan launched his political career in 1964 with a bravura defense of Barry Goldwater's doomed presidential campaign. This stand on principle helped him win the governorship of California and, in 1980, the presidency. Upon taking office, Reagan began to gain the public's confidence by speaking in forthright, colorful ways about the burning issues of a stagnant economy and the Soviet Union's apparent gains in the Cold War. By contrast, Jimmy Carter's hand-wringing pathos had made him seem impotent.

Much like FDR, Reagan used his eloquence quite self-consciously to unite a new majority coalition around his political vision. In this sense, Obama was correct when he said in January that the 40th president "put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Reagan, a onetime New Dealer, could switch deftly between a spiritual and a secular mode as he ridiculed haughty liberals and expressed his faith in what Americans could do if freed from the shackles of "big government." With partisan loyalties weakening, Reagan usually depicted himself as less a conservative Republican than an insurgent outsider who fit none of the traditional political categories.

Of course, FDR and Reagan didn't transform American politics simply by giving enthralling speeches. Each man was fortunate to win the White House at a time when his opponents were discredited and dispirited. Major demographic groups were also turning their way -- black and white ethnic workers for FDR, the white South and insecure middle-class Northerners for Reagan. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet bloc did for Reagan's image what victory in World War II had done for FDR's: It stamped his reputation with the image of moral victory.

But both men's charismatic rhetoric had lasting influence. After each left the White House, his followers kept quoting his words and refreshing the memory of his performances to rally their own side and force their opponents on the defensive. Their rhetoric didn't just persuade, it mobilized.

Other modern presidents have achieved a measure of success without giving soaring speeches. Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson are obvious examples. Yet no member of this trio was able to hand over the keys to the Oval Office to a candidate from his own party. And not until a decade or more after they left office did historians begin to recognize their worth.

Obama may never have the opportunity to match the achievements of Roosevelt or Reagan. His performance on unscripted occasions is less impressive than when he stands before a crowd of supporters, teleprompter rolling. But he has already accomplished a remarkable feat: marshaling his eloquence to persuade millions of Americans that he has both the character and the intelligence to nudge the country toward a more democratic future. Neither Clinton nor John McCain displays that talent.

Obama may share something else with FDR and Reagan: the good fortune to be running at a time when the older order -- in this case, a conservative one -- may be ending. If Obama wins the presidency, he will confront the peril of high expectations. But so did FDR and Reagan, and in the eyes of their many admirers, they fulfilled their promise.

A century ago, another celebrated talker from Chicago observed that public speaking was ingrained in the nation's soul. According to Mr. Dooley, the fictional Irish-born saloonkeeper whose observations, as written by political humorist Finley Peter Dunne, were syndicated in papers across the country, "Ivry thrue-born American regards himsilf as a gr-reat orator." But only a few of them become great presidents.

mk8@georgetown.edu

Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is the author of "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."


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