Newswise — April 7, 2016 (Washington, D.C.) — Great political rhetoric and oratory require skill and preparation, for sure, but also a bit of artifice. American University School of Communication professor Robert Lehrman has co-authored a new book, Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack Obama (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016), that provides sharp insights about the oratorical and rhetorical styles of leading figures in Democratic Party politics since the 1960s. The book discusses the skill, preparation and performance of leading orators, including how Democratic rhetoric has changed over a half century. Readers will also learn how leading figures consistently delivered powerful speeches to connect their message with a variety of audiences from the Senate to the media.
Former Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman is a long-time professor of Speechwriting and Public Speaking at American University. For this book, Lehrman and his co-authors, University of Liverpool Lecturer Andrew S. Crines and David S. Moon, lecturer at the University of Bath, chose different academics to examine 12 Democratic political leaders from the past half century. The book, which carries a Foreword by former Democratic House Majority Whip, David Bonior covers Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and key figures such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Jesse Jackson. Lehrman wrote the chapter on Kennedy, co-wrote chapters on Carter and Obama, and part of the Introduction.
Revive and RepeatAs readers take the book's survey of almost 6 decades of presidential rhetoric, they will learn how often politicians use the same rhetorical devices again and again, especially repetition. “In grade school, you’re taught not to repeat yourself. But in speech, repetition is the source of power for speakers," Lehrman said. "There is a reason Martin Luther King didn’t say, ‘I have a dream,’ one time. He said it many times.”
Repetition at the beginning of sentences –called anaphora—has also become prominent since JFK. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen utilized it often, as in JFK’s “New Frontier” speech where he accepted his party’s 1960 presidential nomination. “Then shall we be equal to the test. Then we shall not be weary. Then we shall prevail,” Kennedy said. "In his Inaugural," Lehrman points out, "Sorensen used seventeen varieties of repetition just in the first seven paragraphs.Storytelling
While several rhetorical devices were not new, Lehrman's JFK chapter describes how Kennedy helped usher in a new era of political communication. “Kennedy used anecdotes and wit much more than his predecessors Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Dwight Eisenhower,” Lehrman notes. “Nowadays, candidates regularly use human stories. It was more novel back in 1960.”
Technology and ConsumptionThe book also details how rapid changes in technology have changed the way presidents communicate. “When George Washington took the oath of office in 1789 a crowd watched, but only 60 people heard his Inaugural address. In 2009 almost two million saw Obama's Inauguration live and almost 38 million on TV,” Lehrman said.
The sheer volume of speeches modern presidents deliver has made speechwriters much more important. In earlier times, presidents rarely spoke in public, around 10 times a year at most according to researchers. By contrast, President Obama speaks about 500 to 600 times a year. While serving as Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Gore, Lehrman found Gore's workload didn't allow the Vice-President to rework each speech. “Presidents are always the lead authors, but for most speeches—not the big ones—they have barely enough time to touch them,” Lehrman added.
Keep it SimpleDemocratic Orators explains yet another change in public rhetoric. Political speech has become simpler due to large audiences in a country where Americans average a 7th grade reading level. In Lehrman’s AU speechwriting class, he instills the importance of keeping speeches simple to his students who have gone on to work as speechwriters in Washington, D.C. and around the country.
“It is rare that even memorable speeches cause big shifts in public attitudes,” said Lehrman. “But every so often, rhetoric and oratory can change history.” One example is the legacy of President Obama’s electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “If then-Senate candidate Obama hadn’t performed so brilliantly he might never have become president of the United States,” Lehrman said. He added that after reporters accused Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Richard Nixon of impropriety in 1952, Nixon's "Checkers" speech had a similar effect. The speech persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket and postponed the destruction of Nixon's career by more than two decades.
The authors plan a second volume for Democratic Orators from JFK to Obama, focusing on noteworthy orators of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Lehrman, who published four novels, is at work on another, while continuing to teach, write speeches, and publish non-fiction under his name.
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