John McCain Should Take a Page From Harry Truman's Political Playbook

McCain's answer to Obama's rhetorical flights should be to find his own voice.

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Barack Obama is taking another page from John F. Kennedy's political playbook. Now John McCain should borrow one from Harry S. Truman's.

Kennedy accepted his party's nomination in 1960 in an open-air arena, addressing a jubilant crowd of 70,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum and proclaiming a new day for the country while a fiery sun slipped below the horizon. Obama will speak on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I have a dream" address. With the sun setting against the Rockies, the moment will be ripe visually and contextually for one of Obama's signature rhetorical moments.

McCain and his campaign have already learned the perils of getting into a direct oratorical competition with Barack Obama—recall the Arizona senator's speech on the evening when Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, already remembered more for the green background and inept delivery than for its content.

The new McCain team will presumably do a better job with the backdrop, but the Arizonan's struggles with the TelePrompTer, strained smile, and forced soundbites seem endemic. One strategy the campaign is employing is to try to present this problem as Everyman accessibility and illustrative of a politician more interested in accomplishments than fancy speechifying. "John doesn't ever want to be something that he is not," Mark Salter, McCain's close aide and top speechwriter, told the New York Times. "There's nothing in there about him that wants to be rarefied." A recent McCain ad sums up the message: "Beautiful words cannot make our life better," the narrator says.

But McCain and his team should be wary of downplaying the importance of presidential speeches. George H. W. Bush took office with the admirable but unrealistic notion that he could substitute actions for words, and then lost re-election when he was unable to explain his tax flip-flops or that he understood people's economic pain. He joined Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford as chief executives who suffered in part because of their inability or unwillingness to utilize the bully pulpit.

Instead McCain should follow the example of another pol who had a tempestuous relationship with written speeches: Truman. In 1948, Truman was a rhetorically challenged pol presiding over a lifeless party facing certain defeat.

Truman simply could not read a speech. He wore thick-lensed glasses but still so strained to see his texts that he would lean down toward the words until his audience saw the top of his head. When he looked back up he would lose his place, giving his speeches awkward pauses. And he spoke in a flat, speedy drone, as if concentrating so hard on transferring the words from page to mouth that he could not spare any thought on which to emphasize.

These problems were underscored by the oratorical competition Truman faced—not from a living political opponent, but from the specter of his revered predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had practically invented the modern presidential style of public speaking. One of FDR's speechwriters was still on staff at the start of Truman's White House tenure, but Truman's speeches sounded like pale echoes of his predecessor's. The memory of FDR's rhetorical mastery only highlighted Truman's inadequacies.

What particularly exasperated Truman's aides was that in private chats and conversations, the president was engaging, garrulous, and witty. But that man would disappear behind the drone of a written text.

In April of 1948, an aide hit upon an idea that helped rescue Truman: Untether him from the text and have him speak from notes or talking points. Speaking before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Truman read his prepared speech in his usual nasal monotone, but then continued off the cuff for 20 minutes—and was transformed. "He was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as neighbors," biographer Jonathan Daniels recalled. After another trial run, Truman tried the extemporaneous approach on national radio. "Looks as if I'm stuck [with] 'off the cuff' radio speeches," he wrote in his diary after it proved successful. "It means lots of hard work, and the head of 64 doesn't work as well as it did at 24."