The Power Of Oratory

"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" is the frequent opening of a Presidential speech. And from Roosevelt to Kennedy to Reagan and beyond ... modern Presidents have strived to make their mark with oratory. How they do it is reported on in our cover story by Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield:

It is the oldest of political weapons, whose power has never waned.

When radio was king, a new president's powerful voice cut through the pessimism of the Great Depression.

"So let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear … is fear itself."

In the age of television, the youngest elected President spoke to our aspirations…

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

A quarter of a century later, the oldest elected President spoke to our grief.

"We will never forget the last time we saw them, as they slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."

And today, in a time of Web casts and podcasts, when media assaults us in bits and bytes, is it really possible that the oldest of political tools - the spoken word - is still one of the most powerful? Yes, it is.

How else did an ex-governor of Arkansas, who began in cash-starved obscurity, become a contender? With a gift for speech and debate honed in his years as a Baptist minister.

"Jesus was too smart to run for office," Mike Huckabee said at one debate.

And how did a state senator with a funny name become a national phenomenon? With a single speech at the last Democratic convention.

"We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we have gay friends in the red states," Barack Obama said, in his plea for unity.

And, whether with carefully prepared formal speeches, or more informal give-and-take with voters, the candidates this year are proving that the gift of rhetoric is not some musty academic matter, as academics like Wisconsin Prof. Stephen Lucas note:

"People thought radio would kill oratory. It didn't kill it, it transformed it," Lucas said. "And Franklin Roosevelt became a maser of radio communication. And then people said, 'Television will kill oratory.' It didn't' kill it; Ronald Reagan became a master of it. And now people are saying. 'Perhaps the Internet will kill oratory.' And in act, it hasn't, because there's no substitute for that face-to-face communication between a speaker and an audience."

Michael Gerson knows something about speeches - he spent years as President George W. Bush's chef speechwriter. But his analysis is non-partisan:

"I don't think in a certain way that it is a coincidence that two of the leading candidates, Obama and Huckabee, are the preachers in the race in many ways," he said. "They know how to have a cadence. They know how to exhort with more language."

Gerson says in the sense of written speeches, Obama's are the most ambitious of all the candidates, to wit:

"They said this day would never come. They said we set our sights too high."

Gerson said his Iowa victory speech was a convention-quality-level speech.

There's a similar non-partisan seal of approval from Michael Waldman, who was President Clinton's chief speechwriter:

"Huckabee clearly learned his skills not in the bully pulpit, but in the actual pulpit. He's got a honeyed voice. He's got a twinkle in his eyes. He has found a way to say things that are very conservative, but to communicate it in a way that doesn't sound threatening to people."

But while Huckabee and Obama have garnered the most praise for their rhetorical skills, other candidates demonstrate that, when it comes to oratory, there is no one-size-fits-all model.

Consider John McCain, who says he much prefers speaking off-the-cuff to prepared remarks. "The people who come to the town meetings, they want Q and A," he said. "They're very disappointed if you stand up and give a speech, then leave."

Gerson was less approving of Hillary Clinton: "She is very substantive when she speaks. She's a master of policy, she's very knowledgeable. But she also, I think, has an annoying style. It can often be lecturing. It can be off-putting. So I think there are significant problems there."

Waldman attributes John Edwards style to his years as a courtroom attorney. "You can see how [he] made his living and won a lot of cases for ordinary citizens, by looking into the eyes of jurors and really convincing them to vote a certain way."

But Edwards disagrees. "The courtroom's actually a more intimate setting," Edwards said, "so you use a lower tone of voice, a more intimate speaking style. These crowds - I just spoke in front of a thousand-plus people - it requires a bigger voice, more passion, so it actually is a different feel."

All right … so the gift of effective speech may be a powerful campaign tool. But it's more than that. Sometimes, the right words change history.

Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.'s immortal "Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Or what happened in March, 1965, after civil rights demonstrators were met with violence by local officials in Selma, Ala. President Johnson spoke to a nationally televised joint session of Congress, urging lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act:

"There must be no delay or no hesitation or no compromise with our purpose," he said.

"The speaker and the moment and the issue came together," Lucas said. "You had the historical significance of the quest for civil rights, and you had Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, standing up, speaking in that slow, Texas drawl, appropriating the anthem of the civil rights movement."

"Really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of discrimination," LBJ said. "And we shall overcome"

"So it was a moment that resonated powerfully with the people who lived it," said Lucas.

In that moment, Johnson's oratory skills were clearly an asset to his governing … but is that always the case?

"Ronald Reagan was once asked, 'How can you be an actor and be President?'" Waldman recalled. "And he thought about it and said, 'I don't know how you can be President without being an actor.' The ability to persuade people is an essential part of the job."

And sometimes, the right words aren't enough - it's the moment that matters.

"To have a great speech in a historical sense, you need at last three things," Lucas said. "One is something important to say. [Another] is the ability to say it well. And the third is some moment of consequence that you're responding to, that will get the attention of the people, and indeed, perhaps posterity."

"People always turn to words, elevated words of comfort and inspiration and idealism," Gerson said. "I don't think that's every going to change."