Presidents learn it's what you say and how you say it
Pittsburgh — Presidential candidates, please take note. Guess who said: ``Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is `Ich bin ein Berliner.'''
How about: ``...to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans - I ask for your support.''
Or: ``This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war.''
Did you guess Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter?
It should come as no surprise that a President's words outlive his administration, says Ted Windt, an authority on presidential rhetoric. The difference in the 1980s is that Ronald Reagan has changed the game. In the hands of the ``great communicator,'' presidential rhetoric has become a powerful and highly sophisticated policy tool.
``I thought I knew this stuff,'' says Mr. Windt, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has studied presidential communication since 1970. But the Reagan administration has taught him a thing or two.
``Their first term is a post-graduate seminar on presidential rhetoric. ... The genius of his [Reagan's] communication was to take a complex situation and make it simple - not simplistic but simple.''
For example, in his first televised speech after his 1981 inaugural address, Reagan outlined four problems of government that had caused ``the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.'' Two weeks later, he followed up with a televised address to Congress on four solutions. The symmetry was planned. The rhetoric was confident: Reduce the role of government and the country will prosper. By August, Congress had passed the largest tax cut in the nation's history. Reaganomics was born.
Can George Bush, Michael Dukakis, or Jesse Jackson equal Mr. Reagan's rhetorical skill?
On pure speaking ability, ``the only one who can turn things around is Jackson with those beautiful rhymes he has,'' Windt says. If President Reagan's rhetoric earns an A, Jackson gets an A-.
``Michael Dukakis? There's no way you can call him a speaker,'' Windt adds. The Massachusetts governor comes across as a technocrat. But ``in debates, he can give very crisp, to-the-point replies.'' Overall grade: C. ``I think Bush will have the same thing. He is not really an accomplished platform speaker.'' Overall grade: C-.
But presidential rhetoric doesn't depend solely on speaking ability, Windt says. To be effective, it has to be well timed. It has to shape the public's agenda and be adaptable when necessary - techniques that Reagan mastered.
For example: When the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner in September 1983, the President's anticommunist rhetoric was vintage Reagan. ``It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life....''
But the rhetoric accomplished two other things as well. With his savvy sense of timing, Reagan used the incident to justify a bigger defense budget - a budget Congress eventually bought. At the same time, he avoided imposing strong anti-Soviet sanctions. A flexible, albeit inconsistent approach allowed Reagan to keep world attention focused on the incident rather than on a dramatic US response. Soviet aggression carried the news headlines for several days, writes Beth Ingold in a collection of essays on presidential rhetoric that she coedited with Windt, her husband. ``It was a fantastic way of turning things around,'' Windt says.
Successful presidents have always used rhetoric to give meaning to events and shape public opinion. Television has heightened this power, he says, but it also holds presidents accountable for what they say. When the Watergate tapes revealed that President Nixon had lied to the public on television, his presidential credibility was doomed, Windt says.
``When you depend upon rhetoric, you're dependent on personal credibility,'' he says. ``If the public turns on you ... your other powers are diminished.''