Michael Kazin: Speaking Well And Doing Great

Roundup: Historians' Take

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

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."...

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....

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