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How Eloquence Has Paved the Way to the White House

by Robert Brent Toplin on Mar 2, 2008

Robert Brent Toplin

They're piling on Barack Obama for being all word, no act. Yet that's wrong on the facts, and the implication is unfair. Obama's oratory has carried him far, but his skill as a talker is not unique. Most of America's popular presidents got into the White House primarily because they were effective communicators.

In recent weeks the public has heard a good deal of mockery about Obama's eloquence. Critics have ridiculed his inspiring messages about "change." Columnist Robert Samuelson has said that "The Obama Delusion" is "largely a stage presence defined mostly by his personal rhetoric." The New York Times's David Brooks believes Americans will soon feel "Obama Comedown Syndrome," especially when they recognize that his "hope-mongering is vaporous."

Of course Obama's competitors for the White House have made derisive comments, too. Hillary Clinton joked that Obama's audiences expect to hear "celestial choirs" promising that "the world will be perfect." John McCain scoffed that Obama's speeches offer "not a promise of hope but a platitude."

Yet throughout U.S. history candidates have excited constituents with their words and, like Obama, have made the idea of change central to their political appeals.

Early in his career, Abraham Lincoln, like Obama, had only brief political experience at the national level but considerable skills as an orator. In the late 1850s Lincoln suddenly attracted national attention when he called for a new direction in American politics, speaking firmly against the expansion of slavery in debates with Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Lincoln was still an underdog in the Republican presidential race before he gave the Cooper Union speech in February 1860 in New York City. The prairie lawyer's sophisticated criticism of slavery erased the doubts of many listeners among a tough New York audience. Words, above all, carried Lincoln to the nomination.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had been governor of New York when he campaigned for the presidency in 1932, but it was his language, especially, that stirred enthusiasm for his candidacy during the hard times of the Great Depression. Roosevelt promised change at the Democratic National Convention: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." His campaign song that year, "Happy Days Are Here Again," accentuated the promise of change.

John F. Kennedy won the presidency in a close race in 1960 largely on the basis of his impressive words in four televised debates with Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy, who was the same age as Obama is now, made the policies of the Eisenhower Administration seem antiquated. JFK said he wanted people all over the world to feel once again that America was "moving" and that "our high noon is in the future." He inspired listeners with a promise of change.

In 1980 voters found Ronald Reagan appealing, not just for what he had done as governor of California, but because of what he said. Audiences were impressed with Reagan's firm but humorous call for change in the role of government. "The nine most terrifying words in the English language," Reagan said, are, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

During his campaign against the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, Reagan spoke in a general but memorable way about the need for a new leader to deal America's with economic problems. "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job," said Reagan. "A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

Bill Clinton won the 1992 election because Americans found his words inspiring, not simply because of his experience as governor of a small southern state. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention the young nominee warned defenders of the status quo, "Your time has come and gone. It's time for a change in America."

Clinton sounded like Obama today. He related his life story — growing up without a father and receiving invaluable assistance from his mother and his grandparents. The candidate spoke repeatedly of a "New Covenant." Then, much as Obama has made a mantra out of the words, "Yes we can," Clinton repeated eight times: "We can do it." He closed by affirming his belief "in a place called Hope."

In this age of television, especially, Americans select their presidents largely on the basis of what politicians say in their campaigns. The public's judgment of the candidates' messages is never perfect. Many Americans now regret their preference in 2000 for a candidate who demonstrated folksy appeal and promised "compassionate conservatism."

There can be no guarantees that Barack Obama, a gifted talker, has the stuff to be a great president. But critics are erecting false standards when they express suspicion of Obama because his speeches inspire voters. Democracy works that way, and we need to stick with the system in the absence of better alternatives.

Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.