U.S. Presidential Speeches

The president's speech remains an important influence tool as words are powerful and with each sentence the leader expresses the character of his presidency and potentially influences history. The speech can address all the aspects of the presidency, including leadership, vision, policy, politics, constituencies, message and media.

To write a speech is an intriguing job and speechwriters have enormous influence, because they impact the ideas and words of the leader. There is a strong relation between the president and his speechwriters, between the process of writing a speech and rhetoric and policy. Speechwriters grant power to the president's words to shape events and have a great role in defining a presidency. Presidents are not passive participants in the process of writing a speech. Usually, the speechwriter expresses their ideas on a draft, then, policy and press advisers try to introduce some change, while the final word belongs to the president.

A good speech has to capture the president's worldview and the political ideas and attitudes of its time. That is why the president himself prefers to act as initiator, ideas man, motivator and editor of the speech. Often he introduces changes in the last moment. During the time of United States president Richard Nixon, his speechwriters became part of a strategic and manipulative communications operation, while Jimmy Carter's speeches reflected his leadership weak points. The nation, in turn, often considers the president's speeches as a window to his personality.

President John F. Kennedy moved the nation by using intonation and alliteration to attract people to his point of view and reasoning, while metaphor was the favorite way of Franklin Roosevelt to persuade, telling Americans how his election was the reason "the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization." Ronald Reagan, in turn, based his rhetoric in a shared morality that points out the nation's founding principles.

Presidential speeches in Roosevelt's White House strongly differed from those in Carter's or Reagan's. The differences show how dramatically presidential speeches have evolved and how these changes have impacted the presidency. Roosevelt used his speech to work rhetorically and then to create policies. Truman's speeches allowed the public to see him as both a president and a person. Kennedy worked closely with his speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen. They supported each other and the two together created memorable messages.

A president's speech could be examined in the context of the president's chief legislator role. The speech's role has changed over the years. It started as a duty and later became a power to initiate and recommend. Presidents use the power of speech as quasi-legislators to take positions, offer solutions and claim credit for successes. The speech is also a useful tool to allow presidents to get Congress to accede to their plans and policies.

On April 7, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his famous speech ‘Peace without Conquest,' addressing the Vietnam crisis. Johnson's administration considered it to be the president's most important foreign-policy speech at that time and NATO allies applauded the content. Johnson declared: "We have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence, we will not withdraw and we are also there because great stakes are in the balance." Johnson entered the White House in 1964 as the peace candidate, although he subsequently ordered the bombing of North Vietnam.

President Barack Obama gave an uplifting Election night speech to the American voters on November 4, 2008. He said: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. All things are possible in America." Obama went on to refer to the "moment of change." This was a key message in his campaign that helped him win the race to the White House.

Rhetoric as the art of effective or persuasive speaking is a powerful component of a presidential speech. The speaker uses rhetoric in an attempt to convince their audience to follow a particular course of action. In times of crisis, rhetoric probably serves best the goals of a president. Using rhetoric effectively, presidents believe that in their speeches they can offer only one acceptable course of action, which is their course of action. By using this tool, their mission is to persuade the American public to vote for them.

U.S. Presidential Speeches: Selected full-text books and articles

Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond By Kurt Ritter; Martin J. Medhurst Texas A&M University Press, 2003
Notable Speeches in Contemporary Presidential Campaigns By Robert V. Friedenberg Praeger, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush
Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator By Kurt Ritter; David Henry Greenwood Press, 1992
Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist By Hal W. Bochin Greenwood Press, 1990
In a Perilous Hour: The Public Address of John F. Kennedy By Steven R. Goldzwig; George N. Dionisopoulos Greenwood Press, 1995
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Strategic Communicator By Martin J. Medhurst Greenwood Press, 1993
Eisenhower's War of Words: Rhetoric and Leadership By Martin J. Medhurst Michigan State University Press, 1994
Harry S. Truman: Presidential Rhetoric By Halford R. Ryan Greenwood Press, 1993
Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings By Abraham Lincoln; Roy P. Basler World Publishing, 1946
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