Just six and one half years ago, a young state senator spoke for 16 minutes and 11 seconds (just 4 seconds longer than the real "King's Speech," Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream," the greatest in modern American history), launched a presidency and established himself as one of America's greatest orators.
Tonight, we will see the maturation of the extraordinary qualities that make Barack Obama America's third greatest presidential orator since 1933. It was those qualities that, in October of 2006, caused me to predict, amidst overwhelming skepticism and doubt, that the young US Senator was ready, would run and would likely win, and the qualities that did, in fact, sweep him to the White House.
In the wake of a profoundly presidential and politically "seismic" moment in Tucson, we approach a speech that I believe will firmly establish Barack Obama as the 3rd greatest presidential orator in modern American history... the era that started with the president who first used the new electronic media to forge a different kind of relationship with the American electorate.
The Top Presidential Orators (since 1933)
6. Lyndon Johnson
7. Richard Nixon
8. Dwight Eisenhower
9. Harry Truman
10. George H.W. Bush
11. Gerald Ford
12. Jimmy Carter
13. George W. Bush
The bar has been very high since the extraordinary first inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 ("The only thing to fear is fear itself") and "fireside chats" that mesmerized a nation of families huddled about their radio boxes. The conviction, confidence, passion, intelligence and wit of FDR pulled our country out of the Depression, through the 2nd World War and into a "New Deal" between government and the people. Regardless of one's views of FDR's policies, this man was a force of nature and a model of how to use words, voice tone and body language to lead a great nation.
But on January 20, 1961, a very young new president stepped up to that high bar and jumped over it with a speech that has been voted the second greatest American speech of The 20th Century by 137 leading scholars -- his "Ask Not" inaugural address. With the help of the incomparable Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy went on to similarly light up Europe and the world with his "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech to a crowd of a million in Germany, a profound foreign policy address at American University and many others in addition to exhibiting levels of charm, wit and personality at press conferences and elsewhere that redefined the concept of charisma in politics. But added to the spectacular delivery and charisma, it was that very rare quality -- vision -- that solidifies JFK as America's greatest modern era presidential orator. From the Inaugural addressing a new vision for America and the world, to his challenging Congress and the American people to unite to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, JFK truly dreamt things that never were and said "why not".
Barack Obama, at his best, in some ways is an even better orator than FDR or JFK and more accomplished than "The Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan, a trained actor and Bill Clinton, by far the greatest one-on-one communicator in politics, if not the history of mankind. Here's why.
At his best...
1. Barack Obama clearly and fully "owns" his words. It is evident to me that on the most important speeches, (his 2004 DNC Keynote, his race speech, the Tucson speech) Obama either writes them entirely or has worked on every single word. There is no replacement for this and even the greatest delivery skills can not compensate for words that were birthed from within the very gut of a speaker.
2. Barack Obama knows how to work an audience. No president has ever been able to use rhythm, body language, pauses and punctuation and nuances in voice tone to "sing" a speech like Dr. King... but at his best Barack Obama comes closest. He has the capacity to play an audience as if it were part of his own personal orchestra and that is a level of mastery that few ever reach
3. Barack Obama uses all "4 Languages" of human communication to deliver his best speeches. This is very rare and one of the biggest things that separates the top 5 from the second tier and great speakers from good ones. It is the ability to excite an audience with energy, ("Visual Language"), give them a compelling story line to follow ("Auditory Language"), rest their anxieties as you show an unshakable grasp of the facts, details and nuances, ("Auditory Digital Language") and, most importantly, to connect with, touch, move and inspire one's audience, ("Kinesthetic Language").
4. Barack Obama doesn't "give a speech" when he gives his best speeches, he has a conversation. Many speakers "Perform at" their audiences or "Present to" their audiences. Obama, "has a Conversation WITH" his audiences, a quality that, like using the 4 languages, is seen only amongst the greatest political and business speakers.
5. Barack Obama understands that the speech on the page or Tele Prompter is not as important as the audience in the seats. His ability to respond to reactions from the audience, verbal and non-verbal, to insert humor and add or adjust his own words, voice tone and body language to the moment, is a supremely high art practiced well by only the very best speakers.
But what about Ronald Reagan? His Challenger Speech, his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech, his warm, affable, charm at press conferences, his strong, fatherly presence and great delivery for all his speeches are legendary.
Ronald Reagan was a tremendous communicator and a great speaker and more consistently good than Barack Obama.
But he was never as good, in his speeches as President, as Barack Obama at his best. Ronald Reagan, despite his extraordinary skills and polished, practiced delivery, rarely owned a speech like Obama does, didn't know how to work an audience quite like Obama, rarely used the "Visual Language" as he did in his earlier days ("The Speech", 1964) and rarely demonstrated the grasp of detail ("Auditory Digital") that JFK, FDR and Obama have.
And, what about Bill Clinton?
Bill Clinton is a phenomenal communicator, a really talented speaker and, as noted above, the most extraordinary one-on-one communicator ever.
But, by his own choice, according to one of his speech writers that I interviewed, President Clinton purposely chose to simplify his speeches and make them less formal without the soaring oratorical flourishes that work audiences up to another level. Politically it is a fine strategy, but this choice diminishes Clinton's oratorical standing. One speech, however, that is included in "Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events", his "What would Martin Luther King think?" speech in Memphis on the 25th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination, did rise to the highest levels of great oratory and it is inspiring and magnificent.
And the second tier?
6. Lyndon Johnson - His civil rights speeches were among the best in American history but as a speaker, and a president, LBJ never dropped down his guard to really ever "connect" with the American people
7. Richard Nixon - We recall the personal flaws, but we often forget the broadcast quality voice, the big smile and the sense of reassuring conviction that Nixon often displayed
8. Dwight Eisenhower - His "Beware the military industrial complex" farewell speech was dwarfed, three days later, by JFK's Inaugural Address, but it is one of the most candid and stunning speeches ever by a sitting American President. Ike was a general, not an orator, but his genuine humanity and deep authenticity make him, in historical retrospective, one of America's better speakers.
9. Harry Truman - Also not an orator, but Truman's conviction and plain spoken, no "bs" style are as refreshing and outstanding now as they were then.
10. George H.W. Bush - People who know Bush 42 personally always comment on his charisma. Sadly that force of personality seemed to have been replaced by the robotic, unnatural body language so famously spoofed on "Saturday Night Live". He would never have made it into the First Tier, but had he shown some of that personal charisma in his speeches, HW would have ranked higher.
11. Gerald Ford - An authentic and very likable man, Gerald Ford didn't have the oratorical or communication skills to have ever ascended to the presidency through the election process. He just didn't have the "oomph", the "Visual Language", nor did he understand how to work an audience. A great, healing president for the time, but could not display enough leadership skills to even beat a sub-par contender in the 1976 general election
12. Jimmy Carter - Only in the aftermath of Watergate and with an opponent like Gerry Ford could someone with Jimmy Carter's public speaking skill set reach to the Presidency. Honesty and quiet Southern charm were the antidote to Richard Nixon but Carter's total inability to generate excitement, to move an audience, to show strength and carry the country to his vision puts him towards the bottom of this list
13. George W. Bush - Like his dad, people who know W go on and on about his extraordinary charisma and force of personality in person. With few exceptions, this never translated into his speeches as president. He rarely "owned" his speeches, possibly because he simply didn't put in the great amounts of time often required to do so. He never really worked his audiences, was often embarrassingly bad at press conferences, rarely if ever exhibited the grasp of detail and nuance that "Auditory Digitals" in the press or the general public require and rarely displayed the "Authentic Passion" in his speeches that characterize the greats, often seeming, instead, like he'd rather be doing something else.
It was Barack Obama's oratory that made him President of The United States. So, tonight, in The State of The Union Address, as Barack Obama begins his re-election campaign he also reinforces his status of one of America's greatest presidential orators.
Richard Greene is the author of Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events.