Style over content Rhetoric: Politicians today may string words together, but they rarely produce memorable speeches.


When President Bill Clinton accepts his party's nomination at the Democratic Convention tonight, his speech will be instantly analyzed, probed and dissected. But will it be remembered?

"Not very likely," says Steven Keller, assistant professor of political communication at George Washington University. "The point of most political speeches today isn't to say something memorable. It's to help project an image that looks good on television."

Americans used to choose their leaders largely on the basis of what kind of speeches they gave. Presidential candidates had to be tireless talkers. Now, with sound bites the most important by-product of any political pronouncement, an entire speech seems like a needless waste of air time.

"I don't think today's political leaders are any less articulate. It's just that the style has changed," says Parker Payson, producer of "Great American Speeches," a four-hour videotape set that traces those changes over the last 80 years.

Great speeches are a function of great themes. "When the nation is in crisis," explains Payson, "politicians will always find the words to address it."

But there's a big difference between what made a great speech in the days before television and what makes one now. If Bob Dole or Bill Clinton acted like Huey Long and other raving orators of the 1930s, people would think they were crazy.

"By the time they reach TV viewers, most campaign speeches have been thoroughly homogenized by aides and advisers," says Keller. Language and ideas have been replaced by bumper-sticker slogans.

In the competition with other entertainment options even presidents have had to adapt their message to the media or suffer the indignity of being turned off.

The first camera-ready chief executive was Franklin Roosevelt. Disabilities forced FDR to substitute the wild arm and body movements used by his contemporaries with exaggerated facial expressions -- now a staple of talking-head television -- and audiences loved it.

John F. Kennedy took the process a step further because of his sex appeal. With the Soviet Union providing the off-camera menace, JFK, aided by master speech writer Ted Sorensen, did the rest.

One of Kennedy's most memorable Cold War speeches was delivered to an outdoor crowd of a million Germans in 1963. Every hope, every fear, every noble aspiration of a whole generation was reduced to a sound bite of four words, and it wasn't even spoken in English. "Ich bin ein Berliner."

The last great presidential speaker, experts say, was Ronald Reagan. As an orator, Reagan was a living motivational tape. His best speeches evoked a spirit of patriotic optimism that kept his critics on the defensive for eight years.

When Reagan gave his first inaugural address in 1981, the country was facing double-digit inflation, terrorist threats and an energy crisis.

"With God's help," he declared, flexing his jaw muscles for the TV cameras, "we can and will resolve the problems that confront us. And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."

Bob Dole made "the speech of his lifetime" in San Diego, but two weeks later what people remember most about the GOP convention is Elizabeth Dole's Oprah-esque floor show.

"Non-oratorical imagery, that's what's important," says Keller. Thus the heavy use at both conventions of split-screen shots, live remotes and quick-cut video bios. Even stories told by the warm-up acts have the same feel as made-for-TV testimonies seen every day on Sally, Ricki and Montel.

But with the networks cutting back coverage to one hour a night, it's obvious most viewers prefer "real" TV shows to the kind either political party has to offer.

When Bob Dole gave his acceptance speech, "Friends," "Seinfeld," and "3rd Rock from the Sun," drew bigger audiences. Tonight's appearance by Bill Clinton probably won't do any better.

L Are we seeing the end of the political speech as we know it?

"I'd hesitate to call it the end, says Payson. But maybe the beginning of the end.

Certainly it's hard to imagine many politicians these days with the same dedication to the spoken word Theodore Roosevelt had.

While he was campaigning for president as a third-party candidate in 1912, Roosevelt was shot. He could have gone to the hospital, but TR had something to say and saw no reason to cut it short. At one point during the 90-minute address, though, he did ask his Milwaukee audience to excuse his subdued delivery, explaining "there is a bullet in my body."

Compare that to the speeches at this year's political conventions, which a nation of channel surfers find less compelling than the average afternoon talk show. That, Keller laments, "really tells you something."

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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