Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oratory Skills

Ok, so I've been watching tons of presidential wannabes debating each other. A couple of weeks ago  I watched  President Obama deliver the State of the Union speech. Afterwards, my state's governor delivered the Republican response. I have heard a lot of analysis of the various candidate's debating skills, as well as the president's SOTU speech & Mitch Daniel's response. I readily admit to being an avid listener of President's and presidential candidate's speeches....good and bad.

President Obama delivering the 2012 State of the Union Address

Here are my observations.

Mitch Daniels seems to be a traditional Mid-Westerner in so many ways. Right down to his plain-spoken way of speaking. Political observers have made much of his average and almost unenthusiastic manner of speech. However, it is obvious to anyone who has listened to him carefully over the last few years that his speeches and public speaking skills have steadily improved. Mitch Daniels has grown noticeably more comfortable in his public speaking and demeanor. Jon Stewart even poked fun at Daniel's response, remarking that it was a reversal of Reagan's "It's morning again in America", a message of despair. (Guess Mr. Stewart's impression of Hoosiers is not a happy one....maybe the only folks from Indiana he knows are a depressed and pessimistic bunch?)

President Obama is a gifted speaker. He definitely knows how to deliver a good speech. He's got the cadence and natural speaking style we like our presidents to have. He uses lots of good counterpoints as he talks, and has a pretty good sense of timing. And he even knows when he delivers a bad joke (e.g. "crying over spilled milk" line). President Obama speaking style resonates with many, especially the "Average Joe," who is probably among the most important undecided types. However, I tend to agree with one commentator who said that Obama tends to lack the one ability that President Clinton has. President Clinton has the unique gift of making one feel as if he were talking directly to you. Say what you want about the former president from Arkansas, he was the master of oratory. I've ready many accounts in which those who had personal conversations with President Clinton stated he made them feel as if they were the only person in the room. That is, indeed, a true gift.

As a young man, President Clinton had wanted to be a minister. His oratory gift would have been just as much at home behind a pulpit as it was behind a podium affixed with the Seal of the President of the United States. Unfortunately, it seemed that he could deliver falsehoods so convincingly that many people would believe him without question. And like other presidents dealing within shades of dishonesty, maybe it was a simple matter of semantics and how select words and sentences are phrased that perhaps he himself believed in the technical/legal truth of what he was saying.  

To many, (and I include myself in this group), Ronald Reagan was the quintessential presidential speech maker. Perhaps among the more poignant moments of Reagan's years in office was his speech from the Oval Office the day of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. I also vividly remember President Reagan's Berlin Wall speech. Few public speakers today can match the timing and what many refer to as his "stage presence." I think that his farewell speech is among his best. He challenged us to remember the fragility of freedom and to be mindful our history, and warned us to protect ourselves from "an erosion of the American Spirit." He spoke eloquently of the "Shining City Upon a Hill" and explained what it meant to him. I am persuaded that he truly believed in and communicated the goodness and greatness of the American people, and all the freedoms our country offers.

President Reagan talking to the nation after the Challenger explosion

And of course, no discussion on presidential speeches would be complete without mentioning JFK. Parts of his inauguration speech are among his most popular and quoted words. His youthfulness and Massachusetts' accent dazzled a country and an entire generation. Kennedy inspired the American people to believe things can and should be better. He was charismatic, charming, and well-spoken. His wealthy upbringing probably had much to do with that (especially when you compare him to his successor). President Kennedy's oratory skills were unquestionably among the best.

The current GOP presidential candidates are not exactly cut from the same clothe as Reagan. Romney is well-spoken and polished, but lacks charisma. Gingrich is probably the best debater of the bunch, and has the ability to masterfully craft a rebuttal into a history professor's lesson. And occasionally he is able to deliver an unexpected punch such as the response he gave CNN's John King at the S. Carolina debate. Although Gingrich's response played well to the crowd, he often comes across as disingenuous and hypocritical. Gingrich is a strong debater, which brings up an interesting question: Does being the best debater make the best candidate? (Of course the answer is no, but in our sound-bite obsessed digital age it does make a tremendous difference between being a front-runner and being perceived as a mediocre, milquetoast candidate who inevitability loses the election). At the end of the day, Gingrich and Romney both have difficulty projecting the natural oratory abilities and charisma of a Reagan or Clinton.

I did recently watch someone who has the persona and attitude many of us like to see in our leaders. Clint Eastwood did a car commercial during half-time of the Super Bowl. Although it was not necessarily a political advertisement (although some have said it was portrayed as Obama-friendly), Eastwood's message resonated with many viewers, and gave this viewer pause. The commercial really did tap deeply into that reservoir of American exceptionalism. It's this kind of thing that stirs and rouses people, calling forth the best in us. It is exactly the message we need at a time of incredible challenges and bleak days. The message conveys the idea that, yes, we've had some bad moments, but the game is not over. It's only half-time. We WILL get right back up and give it our best. We are a tenacious and tough bunch. We believe in excellence. Besides being among my favorite actors (excuse my bias), to me, Clint Eastwood has always represented the kind of guy that cuts through the nonsense and rights the wrongs. His commercial was reminiscent of Reagan's "It's Morning Again in America" ad. It pulled at the 'can-do' heart strings that Americans believe in so strongly. It was a powerful, motivational, appealing, and optimistic message. The kind of message that, should the right candidate be able to grasp onto and properly articulate, could help them win (re-win?) the office of the presidency. A persuasive message, given by the right candidate with persuasive oratory there one out there?

Note: All photos of US Presidents and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are from WikiMedia Commons and are specifically stated to be the work of the United States Government and are in the public domain. Photo of Gov. Mitch Daniels is the work of Ray Taylor and is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain , and is not meant to be considered as an endorsement. 

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I work for a Community-Based, Not-for-Profit agency. I have worked in the disability field for over twenty-five years. I am the father of two boys, and have been married to my teenage sweet-heart for 23 years. I live and work in the same town where I was born & raised.
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