Speaking as a President

I’ve frequently heaped scorn on Obama’s oratorical abilities.  His speeches remind me of the political speeches in old Hollywood movies.  In those days, the movies were careful not to take sides in any obvious way, so they’d have political characters make speeches using orotund phrases that contained high sounding platitudes, but that actually said nothing  at all.  It was very clever double-speak for entertainment purposes.  Very Obama-ish.  I was therefore quite pleased to read the post that William Katz, who blogs at Urgent Agenda, did for Power Line, because it’s a reminder that, given a choice between pretty speeches and actual ability, Americans have historically chosen the latter every time:

Those who’ve read these pieces know that I was a talent coordinator on The Tonight Show. When the staff met with Johnny Carson, in an office overlooking Radio City Music Hall, one thing was constantly drummed into our heads: Substance. Carson, a master of his game, knew that the talent of a guest wasn’t enough. The guest had to have something to say. If the guest ran out of material, or interesting stories, the guest was inducted into our alumni hall of fame. Hollywood is filled with people who thought they could drop in at The Tonight Show, say a couple of witty things, smile for the civilians, and leave. They would in fact leave, never to return.

I thought about that lesson in the days before Super Tuesday, as the huge wave of Obamamania rolled over me. Here, we were told, was a great speaker. As Sinatra might have put it, leave us we should count the ways. He is 1) inspiring, 2) dynamic, 3) articulate, 4) intellectual, and 5) human. He is the Obama, and we will go crazy for him because he is such an orator.

Carson had a line for hype like that: Aren’t we lucky.

Granted, Barack Obama is a terrific speaker. But how important is his oratory, or anyone else’s, in a presidential campaign? Well, the Gallup organization took a poll on this very question in January. This is what they found:

“Even though Americans value having an inspiring president, they give higher priority to a leader who has been tested when asked to choose between two hypothetical candidates as defined by these two dimensions. Fifty-two percent of Americans say they would prefer the 2008 presidential election winner to be ‘a candidate who is a tested leader but who is not that inspiring’ while 43% say it would be better to elect ‘a candidate who is inspiring but who has not been tested as a leader.’”

That’s pretty much in line with the history of the last 75 years.After all, in the 1950s we were madly for Adlai. Like Obama, he was from Illinois, and he too was a great speaker. I remember Adlai Stevenson well. I stood right behind him as he addressed a huge crowd in our high-school gymnasium. Pearls came from his mouth, veritable pearls. But Adlai got buried in two presidential elections by Dwight Eisenhower, whose speaking abilities ranked somewhere between Yogi Berra and a silent movie. Eisenhower, though, was a tested leader.

Then there was Jack Kennedy. Now there was a guy who could command a room. I was in the hall on November 4, 1960, in Chicago, when Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps. There he was, his right hand jutting into space to underline every point. The girls squealed. They jumped at every Jack gesture. But, despite his inspiration quotient, Jack Kennedy lost the women’s vote to Richard Nixon, and barely inched by on election day. If truth be told, he may even have lost on that day before Hollywood accounting was applied to the Chicago vote totals.

Douglas MacArthur? He was one of our finest orators, eloquent and dramatic. He was known almost as much for his style as for his generalship. He could thrill an audience or send a West Point team on to victory. He wanted desperately to be president. He didn’t get to be president. He didn’t even get close.

The point here is this: I looked back as far as the 1930s and concluded that great speaking is vastly overrated as a political weapon. In fact, in presidential politics, the better speaker often loses. Though no spellbinder, Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 was a far better speech maker than Harry Truman. He lost. Hubert Humphrey was actually a distinguished orator, especially on the floor of the United States Senate. In 1968 he lost to the same Dick Nixon whom Kennedy may have beaten. We mentioned poor Adlai, now largely forgotten. Al Gore, again no candidate for Mr. Excitement, was far more articulate than was George W. Bush. He lost in 2000, although the Daily Kos is still holding out.

Treat yourself.  Read the rest here.


4 Responses

  1. How refreshing. (More refreshing than his speeches.) When a couple of generations now have been raised on bland, sometimes blind, notions of “equality” and “potential” and “justice,” it’s not surprising that someone so rhetoric-bloated as Obama can capture millions of dollars and (soon) millions of votes. How sobering, too.

  2. Sounding good – though I don’t personally believe Obama does – is always better than actually being good. Looking good, of course, while sounding good, is always best. (Thus JFK gets walloped in the debates on radio, but wins amongst the TV viewers.)

    Abraham Lincoln was, when you get right down to his policies, a fairly mediocre, if not positively lousy, president.

    But damn – he was eloquent! Eloquent enough to be consistently ranked as our greatest president – until you study what he actually did. But he sounded just wonderful. (This in a day, don’t forget, when you had to wait a week to read what he said in the papers.)

    It’s a danger.

  3. Alot O’ Obama out there. Personally, I know what all of the Hub Bub is about; I am just not buying it. You might like to read more about Obamanizers in my post about Obama titled, “Obama Fruit, Not so Sweet” at:


    Check it out and let me know what you think.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now,
    thanks for your words and your time.

  4. Nice analogy, Rigg. (And a reminder of a song I loved as a child.)

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