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The presidency of words: A deterioration of speech


The more presidents express themselves, the less memorable their words. Blame it on Nixon.

First a little history. In his 1996 "Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence" (Free Press, 352 pages, $25), Wayne Fields stressed that Thomas Jefferson advocated "a republican nation whose [citizens] would be led by reason and persuasion, and not by force." The Constitution specified that the president lead by rhetoric: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend such measures as he judge necessary."

But in a republican nation, leaders reasoned with and persuaded each other, not the citizenry. That would encourage demagoguery, perhaps mob rule.

Presidents George Washington and John Adams came to Congress to give members information and recommendations man to man. Jefferson regarded even that as not republican enough, so he sent his "State of the Union" speeches to the Capitol to be read by others. Every 19th century president followed suit.

Even Abraham Lincoln. Abe rationed his speech making. The most eloquent of American presidents seldom tried to influence the public with oratory. In "The Rhetorical Presidency" (1987), Jeffrey Tulis pointed out that Lincoln often told his audiences that he must be silent on important events because his duty was to the Constitution and the nation, not to popular opinion. By Tulis' count, Lincoln made only 78 public addresses in his four years in office.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, no presidential rhetoric survives as his has. "Fourscore and seven years ago" and "government of the people, by the people and for the people" are from a speech dedicating a battlefield cemetery. "Mystic chords of memory" and "better angels of our nature" are from his First Inaugural. "With malice toward none, with charity for all" is from his Second Inaugural. I could go on.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to go over Congress' head to get the public to pressure it. He spoke to many public gatherings to create support for railroad regulation legislation. Carol Gelderman, in her fine 1997 book "All the Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency" (Walker and Company, 221 pages, $23), says that transformed the office and upset the Constitution's deliberate balance of the presidency, Congress, the judiciary and the states.

Woodrow Wilson got TR's point. He delivered his State of the Union speeches in person, and he whistle-stopped on behalf of priority agenda. After Wilson came Warren Harding and the innovation that would eventually produce so much forgettable presidential rhetoric. He hired a full-time speechwriter.

Presidents had always had speechwriting help. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped George Washington write his Farewell Address. But presidents' words had remained overwhelmingly their own, and when they asked rhetorical help, they sought out men of stature, policy makers and elected officials. Harding's writer was just a wordsmith.

Since Harding, all presidents have used writers to one degree or another, but for 35 years presidents still played a direct role in most of the writing, and for 35 years their collaborators were usually people with policy responsibilities or substantive experience.

Franklin D. Roosevelt helped write or extensively edited his speeches in collaboration with close advisers. He is the most enduringly quotable of 20th century presidents.

"I pledge you, I pledge myself a new deal for the American people," he said on accepting the Democratic nomination in 1932. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he said in his First Inaugural. "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny," he said in accepting renomination in 1936. "A date which will live in infamy," he said following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Harry Truman gave us "do-nothing Congress," and Dwight Eisenhower "military-industrial complex," but no real rhetorical legacy. Ike was wrongly regarded as incoherent, based on fractured press conference syntax. In fact, he had been a speechwriter for Douglas MacArthur, and once told a biographer that he wanted his own World War II declarations to be "elegant."

John Kennedy was in a class with FDR and Lincoln. Speechwriting involving him and close aides and Cabinet members produced such memorable lines as:

"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

Lyndon Johnson was an arm-twisting version of the Founding Fathers' vision of a president who persuaded members of Congress to support his policies.

Then came Nixon. Unsatisfied with his personal popularity, he created an Office of Communications for which was hired a large staff of public relations men and journalists with little or no involvement with policy but everything to do with improving his "image." Their expertise was in knowing how to craft statements for television and newspaper sound bites and headlines.

Speechwriting, which had been the work of serious and respected players in presidential affairs, became a chore for flacks and lackeys.

It got no better under subsequent presidents. I once likened Jimmy Carter's speechwriters to the White House kennel master. Satire, but a decade later, White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote straightforwardly of George Bush's speechwriters: "In terms of political pecking order, they're just above the people who cleaned up after Millie [the Bush family dog]."

Between Carter and Bush was Reagan. Reagan had long written his own speeches, but as president he too turned to a big staff -- and to non-verbal communication. The White House PR operation began to spend as much if not more time on what a presidential event would look like on television as on its substance. "The picture takes precedence over the word," Gelderman wrote. The photo op trumped even the sound bite.

The most memorable substantive presidential line in the past 32 years has to be Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" And its impact is based in large part on the setting and Reagan's communicating heartfelt anger when he spoke the staff- written words.

Judged quantitatively, Bill Clinton not Reagan, is the Great Communicator. He has insisted on saying something, usually a lot, about everything. Contrast the 78 quotable public speeches Lincoln gave in four years with, by Gelderman's count, Clinton's 600 (!) very forgettable ones in a single year.

One of the best sources of presidential rhetoric is the 1997 "American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations." It is better organized and annotated than most such books, and, for the purposes of this essay, the most selective. It cites Lincoln 67 times, FDR 47 and JFK 44. Nixon through Bush plus Clinton's first days altogether total 45.

Later editions will surely include what will probably be the most enduring Bill Clinton utterance: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Interestingly (like the most memorable Nixon quote, "Well, I'm not a crook"), it was not from a speech but an ad lib response to a question, and a falsehood.

Theo Lippman Jr., a Sun editorial writer and columnist from 1965 to 1995, won the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for distinguished commentary. He has wriiten biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Sens. Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy. His books about Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken and Spiro Agnew deal in part with their World War II years. He writes his own speeches.

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