is the Key to Presidential Legacies
By Jeanette Henderson
When you look at the biographies
of our founding fathers, almost all of them include
remarks about how that person was "a great
orator." How many presidents have earned that
moniker since the advent of radio and TV in the
last century? Three, maybe four in eighty years.
Consider the legacy of FDR. Though some of us might
remember him for his massive social programs that
helped us rise from the Depression, most of us remember
his Fireside chats and his speech to Congress after
the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that "date which
will live on in infamy."
The next president we all remember as a good speaker
is JFK. Though we will never forget his assassination
in broad daylight and the aftermath that followed,
we very often remember how he beat his opponent
Richard Nixon in a debate because Nixon was shifty-eyed,
sweating, and on the verge of a "makeup malfunction,"
while JFK appeared cool, calm and "presidential."
The next most remarkable president from a presentational
standpoint, of course, is Ronald Reagan. As the
first career actor to take the presidential podium,
he grew up understanding and mastering the art of
the electronic media, which is why he earned the
coveted title, "The Great Communicator."
In reality, his presidency succeeded because he
knew precisely how to communicate with the people,
even on unpopular issues, and to make us see the
world as our world, together, for the first time
in many decades.
His successor, George H.W. Bush is better known
for his lack of ability to communicate. While he
may have been a very effective and popular leader
at the time for having fought and won a war on his
watch, he was unable to effectively communicate
"that vision thing" during his re-election
campaign. The result was a resounding defeat by
a practically unknown, backwoods Arkansan who had
almost no name recognition at the time, but quickly
made up for that by being able to make a great presentation.
It’s a lesson astute contenders for the 2008
presidential election should take to heart.
What Bill Clinton did have (and still does), is
an excellent understanding of the techniques necessary
to make an effective presentation, regardless of
the venue or the circumstances. Clinton has clearly
mastered the art of talking his way into and out
of just about anything. It takes years of training
to master, in the same way it took years of studio
training for President Reagan to master, but the
results are well worth it.
Now, of course, we have President George W. Bush.
What sort of presentational legacy will he leave?
When he speaks before a friendly crowd using teleprompters,
he can usually come across adequately, though not
very inspiring, despite some very well written speeches,
confirming that it’s less about what you say
and more about how you say it.
When he has to answer questions, however, he fails
miserably, for two main reasons. The first is his
incessant use of "thinking words" like
"um" and "uh," which makes it
appear that he has no clue how to answer, or that
he’s just making things up as he goes along.
This terrible and counterproductive habit (and one
that even many newscasters are now succumbing),
can have no other effect on the listener than to
force them to conclude the speaker has no idea what
he or she is talking about. Obviously, this is not
the kind of impression a leader should want to make.
The second major mistake he makes is with his defensive,
even whiney tone of voice. Sounding like a whiner
diminishes all remaining credibility. No one wants
to follow a whiner. Imagine George Bush using that
defensive tone of his for a line like, "We
have nothing to fear but fear itself." Again,
it’s less about what you say, and more about
how you say it that wins the hearts and minds of
The United States has had many great leaders who
were poor presenters. We’ve also had many
great presenters who were poor leaders. Yet the
only ones that seem to leave a legacy worth remembering
are the few that manage to achieve both.
We are grateful that our Constitution and its First
Amendment allow us to criticize our leaders like
this without fear of prosecution, thus making this
article possible. But the "right to free speech"
is being underutilized when it doesn’t encourage
the "right to great speech" as well. The
next leader that is able to both lead and make a
great speech might once again earn the legacy of
"great orator." Heaven knows, we could
(Jeanette Henderson is author of the book, There’s
No Such Thing as Public Speaking, recently published
by Penguin. A top speech coach, teacher, writer,
and speaker, she is Special Correspondent for the
public radio talk show Viewpoints on WCPI-FM in
Middle Tennessee, and co-founder of Podium Master,
a nationally-recognized presentation consulting
firm. She may be contacted through www.podiummaster.com.)