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Public speaking lessons for presidents

Messages to the incoming president

A POINT OF VIEW

Barack Obama has a big speech coming up this Tuesday. For a lesson in how to reassure a jittery populace - and banking system - look to Depression-era leader FDR, says Harold Evans.

How do you talk to a nation? How do you talk to a people beset by fear but beguiled by the impossible expectations a new leader arouses - as Abraham Lincoln had to do on the bloodiest battlefield of the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt in the darkest gloom of the Great Depression and Winston Churchill when Britain was alone in 1940.

Harold Evans

Obama is a very fine writer and one more sympathetic to the rules of syntax than his immediate predecessor

There is huge expectancy for the inaugural address next Tuesday by the 44th president of the United States, more significantly America's first black president - well, strictly speaking, half-black.

We know President Barack Hussein Obama has a rich baritone. Lincoln had a thin piping voice which didn't carry - but that didn't matter. What carried into history were the words he himself wrote and read - without a teleprompter.

Since the advent of amplifiers, radio and television, voices have mattered. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's voice wouldn't have scared a sparrow hawk. Churchill had no better news for the British than Chamberlain, but his growling imperatives evoked the spirit of St Crispin's Day.

Waxwork of Obama, with teary baby
Will soothing words help?

We know Obama is a very fine writer and one more sympathetic to the rules of syntax than his immediate predecessor, whose ability to murder the language we misunderestimated.

We know, too, Obama is unlike George Bush in that he can rouse emotional multitudes with his classical oratory permeated with the rhythmic call-and-response cadences that Martin Luther King brought so memorably from the Baptist churches of the south to the March on Washington in 1963: "I have a dream."

Forty-six years later, it's been realised: Yes we can! We're all fired up and ready to go.

And we know this also about Obama - his spiritual mentor is Honest Abe. The junior senator from Illinois, as he was less than a year ago - it all seems now to have gone in a flash - opened his campaign in Lincoln's former home of Springfield, Illinois, and he's very conscious of taking the oath of office within a month of the bicentennial of that birth of 12 February, 1809. He'll take the oath with his hand on the same Bible Lincoln used at his first inauguration.

Secret Service man at Lincoln Memorial during visit by Obama family
Obama's hero: "Honest Abe" Lincoln

Number 44, as he will be, has read and re-read the speeches of Number 16, and absorbed how the greatest of them, the Gettysburg Address, is the most imperishable of all the speeches in American history. Even though its 272 words were delivered in two minutes and it was gloriously unspecific.

Lincoln, soon to be assassinated, did not distinguish between the Union dead and the Rebel dead who lay on that hallowed ground. Nor did he use the occasion to defend his actions, discuss slavery or declare the policies he'd seek at victory.

Instead, he offered a rededication to the new nation that had been conceived in liberty and dedicated to the inspiring proposition that all men are created equal.

Behave like bankers

For all his admiration of Lincoln, President Obama won't attempt a speech of such dazzlingly potent economy. For the Washington thousands outside the Capitol and along the Mall, a few moments rubbing hands, and a couple of coughs, and they'd miss the historic moment they'll have endured hours to hear in the freezing cold.

Gilt-edged Lincoln Inaugural Bible, which Obama will use to be sworn in
Obama will be the first president since Lincoln to be sworn in on this Bible

It is more likely that he will follow the model of Number 32, Franklin Roosevelt, whose words and methods we're told Obama has also been avidly studying.

FDR's inaugural address in 1933 is remembered for saying the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself, but it was hard-headed, too. We live with an uncanny echo of his demand that: "There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing."

But reading the words today of that one speech - or even the great one at Madison Square Garden in 1936 where he romped to a second term by confronting his enemies - "They are unanimous in their hatred of me," he thundered, "and I welcome their hatred" - does not, I think, give us a proper appreciation of just how FDR succeeded in leading the nation in its misery, and preserving democratic capitalism.

FDR with his cigarette holder
Roosevelt in a playful mood

It was very much the same way I believe Obama will seek to lead - partly by instinct and partly by emulation. If his voice is not as wondrously warm as FDR's, his style is as relaxed and his smile is as reassuring as Roosevelt's in the famous photograph with his jaunty long cigarette holder (a vice which he shares).

Obama's habit of reading history has surely let him understand the folly of the bitter handover from Herbert Hoover to FDR. Fierce as were Obama's campaign criticisms of Bush, humiliated as Bush plainly is by the opprobrium he's receiving on leaving office, the two men have behaved cordially in private and in public.

They joined in the same appeal to Congress to release the other half of the $700 billion bail-out money and Bush even threw a lunch at the White House so Obama could be photographed with him and three other living Presidents.

Mutual contempt

That is most decidedly what did NOT happen in the Hoover-Roosevelt transition of 1933. In the four long months between the November election and the March inauguration, the skies fell in. Hoover thought FDR nothing but a showman who'd say anything to get his way.

Rare image of FDR in leg braces
It was all but a secret that FDR needed leg braces to stand up

At one White House reception, Hoover's contempt was such he kept Roosevelt, crippled by polio, standing for a whole hour, painfully held up by his heavy braces. In November, as a transition briefing ended, FDR started to wheel himself out of the room. Hoover snapped: "Nobody leaves before the President."

FDR soon exacted revenge. In February the banking crisis had become so acute that Michigan state closed all its banks. Hoover was frantic. He wrote in his own hand to FDR urging a joint statement to stem the panic. "Like hell, I will," answered Roosevelt. "If you haven't got the guts to do it yourself, I'll wait until I'm president to do it."

And so he did, proclaiming a four-day bank holiday on 7 March. Perhaps it's as well it was left to Roosevelt to bite the bullet. Of all the many early achievements of FDR, the most sensational was the change he wrought in the national mood. Fear, cynicism and despair yielded to hope, trust and courage.

Hoover was as stiff as his old-fashioned collars. FDR knew how to talk to people, how to win trust. In the day before the reorganised banks reopened, he went on the radio for the first of his many fireside chats. He didn't condescend to his listeners. He explained the banking system in warm and friendly tones, and with a candour and thoroughness Hoover had never attempted.

New York Times cartoon from 1933, showing FDR as a bank teller and customers holding sacks marked "confidence"
Bags of confidence: New York Times on FDR's first fireside chat

FDR identified himself with the people: "It is your problem not less than it is mine... together we cannot fail." And, when he'd finished his chat, people all over America were taking their savings from under their mattresses, stuffing cash and raw gold into sacks and taking it the banks so that by 15 March, nearly 13,000 had reopened, some with bands playing FDR's campaign tune, Happy Days Are Here Again.

In his fireside chats, FDR spoke to some 60 million or more as if he were confiding frankly to a single friend and equal partner in the privacy of the Oval Office. The intimacy he created was an illusion - in a way all leadership is a necessary illusion - but it was not a confidence trick.

FDR believed in his direct connection with the people. Frances Perkins, FDR's Labour Secretary, and the first woman ever to attain Cabinet rank, was often at the White House when FDR broadcast. She has told us that he was oblivious of the 20 or 30 aides in the room, his mind clearly focused on the people listening at the other end.

"As he talked his head would nod and his hands would move in simple, natural, comfortable gestures," she wrote. "His face would light up and smile as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlour with them. People felt this and it bound them to him in affection."

Twenty years later, when I first travelled in the US, I'd often come across a campaign poster or photograph of FDR still with a pride of place in the parlour.

We have to wait on history to see whether Obama, in the phrase from Lincoln's first inaugural, is so held so dear by the mystic chords of memory.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Everyone knows the top and tail of the Gettysburg Address ("Four score and seven years ago... by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.") but the lesser known middle section proclaims that the memory of the soldiers' sacrifices will endure while any speeches will fade: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Which is ironic because the speech has become legendary but who, outside of the USA, knows much about the Battle of Gettysburg?
MJ Simpson, Leicester, UK

At 75, I can remember as a child when FDR would give a fireside chat, how the whole family would listen as he would encourage and cheerlead the country to Victory. His voice became weaker though as he declined, but when he died (a stroke), thousands lined the tracks and cried as his corpse was borne from Warm Springs, Georgia to Washington, then to Hde Park, where hen was buried. We had a picture of FDR in our parlor as well. Even as children, we were stirred by the focused speeches of your PM Winnie.
John Grayson, Redding, California, USA

It may well be Obama's respect (if the word fascination is too strong) for President Lincoln that is responsible for Obama's oratory strengths. Clearly, Lincoln was a unifier in the most obvious sense; the nation was divided against itself in the Civil War and there's no doubt that the perfect storm of major problems and issues that Obama must address as he takes office are among the most pressing this country has had to deal with.

While Obama alone certainly has limited ability to solve these massive problems single-handedly, it's that public speaking skill to inspire and motivate (and unify) others that is one of his greatest assets in such a huge undertaking.
David Portney, Redondo Beach, CA US

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