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