What's the point of presidential speeches?

Franklin D Roosevelt FDR's speeches are the benchmark, but few live up to them today

For the last 15 years I've covered American presidents. That's 42, 43 and 44. From those three administrations I can remember precisely two speeches.

They are President Bush's second inaugural and candidate Barack Obama's speech on race. And to be totally honest I can't even remember them in great detail; it's more the flavour than the specific words that stay with me.

Now I have a really abysmal memory, but only two speeches in 15 years? Even I ought to be able to do better than that. If those speeches were so important, wouldn't I be able to recall them better? Which got me thinking (a little hopefully, perhaps). Maybe it's not my addled brain but the speeches themselves. Maybe presidential speeches are unmemorable because they don't have much lasting impact.

Changing times

Ever since the days of Franklin D Roosevelt's fireside chats we like to think words uttered from the most powerful man in the world will change history. After all, if the guy in the Oval Office can't bully his way out of the pulpit with nifty speeches, who can? Indeed, Roosevelt's 30 presidential radio addresses really did change events. Historians now credit much of the success of the New Deal with both the content and the delivery of Roosevelt's evening chats.

But times have changed, and so have we journalists.

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Grand promises notwithstanding, that speech did not mark a radical change in US policy... The meek, I'm sorry to say, are still scrapping over the crumbs of a measly inheritance”

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We esteemed members of the fourth estate make a big deal of a set piece speech by an American president. We get reporters to cover the event, we schedule extra air time, pray for extra ads, and dissect every line for its "newsiness".

But maybe we're wrong. Presidents no longer change America by giving a great speech. They don't even shift the needle on public opinion in support of one policy or another.

For his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, political scientist George Edwards studied the major speeches of every recent American president. "If the point of presidential speeches is to move public opinion - and that's certainly what most of us think - they simply don't work," he writes.

Public opinion, Mr Edwards argues, shifts because of events, not words. This suggests the fireside chats were the exception, not the rule. In fact, even FDR couldn't rely on swaying the country solely with words. "It was true even with Franklin Roosevelt before World War II. The country moved when Hitler did things, rather than when FDR made a speech."

Frozen weather, fiery warnings

So let's take the two speeches I do recall as test cases of whether a presidential address really matters. Why do I remember those two speeches more than others? Was there a consequence to those words which made them more memorable, more significant?

"We will stand with you", President Bush declared.

On the freezing morning of his second inauguration, George W Bush promised fire and brimstone on anyone in the world who didn't sign up to the freedom agenda. It was a post 9-11 speech, positioning America on the side of angels around the world. Again, that's flavour, not words. What Mr Bush actually said was, "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Memorable presidential speeches

There have been hundreds throughout history, but only a few stand out

  • George Washington's farewell address (1796) The first president offered a roadmap for the new nation, including a warning to "steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world"
  • Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address (1863) "Four score and seven years ago" is the legendary beginning to one of America's most famous speeches. At only 272 words, the pithiness packed a punch
  • Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address (1933) By reassuring Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" FDR sought to calm nerves during a time of economic depression
  • John F Kennedy's inaugural address (1961) JFK's command to "ask not what your country can do for you" inspired a generation of service-minded citizens
  • George Bush's inaugural address (1988) The phrase "thousand points of light" entered the public consciousness in part because George Bush Sr used it in several different speeches, most notably his inaugural. But it also was a feature of Dana Carvey's Bush impersonation on Saturday Night Live

He followed with an equally bold promise that America would indeed ensure that the meek inherit the earth, or, in the president's own words "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

Grand promises notwithstanding, that speech did not mark a radical change in US policy. America continued to befriend Egypt and Uzbekistan, to name just a couple of unsavoury relationships, whilst it also continued to allow the innocent citizens of Darfur to die in what a senior administration official called a genocide. The meek, I'm sorry to say, are still scrapping over the crumbs of a measly inheritance.

The reason I remember that speech is because even as I stood there, shivering on the Washington Mall, warning bells rang clear and loud in my mind. Here was the gulf between America and her allies. As much as the interventionist ideals promised in that address would be lauded by those who had voted for Mr Bush's re-election, it would send shivers of horror down the spines of the growing ranks of people around the world for whom America had become dangerously unilateral.

I'm not passing judgement on whether the reactions of either side were justified, but that speech symbolised the alarming gap in trans-Atlantic relations that came to be known as anti-Americanism.

Dog-whistle politics

It was a period of my time in the United States that I found particularly upsetting. Maybe that's why I remember the 43rd president's second inaugural so clearly - not for the policies that ensued but for what it said about that moment in history.

Candidate Barack Obama made a major speech on race relations in the US.

What about Barack Obama's campaign speech on race? I defy anyone, whether they voted for him or not, to say that wasn't moving and powerful. For a black candidate in an era of dog-whistle politics, it was a gamble: tackling head on one of the trickiest subjects in America. And he did so with grace and generosity, from the unique standpoint of someone of mixed race.

He described his white grandmother, who raised him and who he loved, being scared of black men. She was "a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." No white candidate could have said that this openly.

Mr Obama didn't shy away from talking about black resentment either. "That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table... occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews."

The speech ended with a call to unity and was generally deemed inspiring, but did it change race relations in America? Not really. Nor did it lift millions of African Americans out of poverty or change the fact that US prisons are so disproportionately populated with black men.

It may have helped Barack Obama get elected, and that may have afforded some African-Americans an enduring sense of pride, but the link to the speech itself is tenuous. And many black Americans would today complain that Mr Obama has not done enough to fulfil their hopes that he would transform their lives for the better.

Once again, the reason this speech is memorable is not because it changed America - it didn't. What it did do was address the most hyper-sensitive issue in this country with unique frankness. It was the candour as much as the result that made it stick in my mind.

Back-room deals

Poll numbers agree with my poor memory. Presidential speeches aren't important because they don't change public opinion or policy. That's almost certainly true of President Obama's speech on jobs. It doesn't matter what he says. All that matters is what he does.

I realise that sounds trite, but the only thing that will create jobs are hard-won policies that result from hours spent negotiating with Congress on legislation that will stimulate growth. Legislation, for example, to reform taxes and mortgage policy. Yes, I hear you yawn.

Back-room deals struck in the grey corridors of Washington office blocks aren't nearly as glamorous as beautiful words delivered to the illustrious Houses of Congress, but they are a lot more effective.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Fair words cost nothing, and the tongue of man is a twisty thing

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Speeches and related events are important only in that they give the media something to talk about. In this country, political ads are integral to the profit of media companies. Hence, politics gets a lot of coverage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    There's no harm in Presidential speeches. They don't cost anything. It's Presidential action you want to worry about. That costs a fortune. Let Obama flap those lips every evening till January 2013, just as long as (a) I don't have to listen and (b) he stops spending other people's money like it's going out of fashion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "Suit the word to the action; the action to the word." (Wm. Shakespeare)

    Shakespeare had it right. Words only mean something when the actions that follow them support the same intention. Otherwise, what you have is a big,fat insult to your intelligence--or exactly the pablum you were looking for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hearing the views of these ultra-conservative Republicans leaves nobody in any doubt. Come 2013 Obama's legacy will be wiped clean... Healthcare - will exist, but only those who can afford it. The Tea Party machine will rumble on, ensuring the mega-rich get richer, and the poor starve.

    The Republicans are as far away from progressive politics , as they've ever been.. possibly further away.


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