He had his stumbles. Speaking from the back of a train in Oregon in June, Truman declared of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, "I like old Joe! He is a decent fellow." Imagine that comment in the age of 24-hour news networks and YouTube. But Truman's ad-libbed addresses became the heart of his historic electoral comeback that year. While his opponent repeatedly gave the same rote speech, reporters would pile out of the Truman campaign train to hear what the president would say this time because it would never be quite the same. (Of course, endless repetition of a stump speech is now standard for political campaigns, though McCain's love of holding court with the press on his bus and meeting voters in town hall meetings echoes the high-wire act of Truman on the train.)
Truman even employed his off-the-cuff style in his biggest single speech of the campaign season: his acceptance address at the Democratic convention, before a party so moribund that one cabbie had quipped that he should be driving a hearse, not a taxi. Speaking simply from an outline, his voice rising and falling, quickening and slowing, Truman put a charge into his party. He would "win this election and make these Republicans like it—don't you forget that!" he told his audience, ad-libbing.
Should John McCain get up on national television, then, and wing it with notes? Maybe. But drawing lessons too literally from history can be dangerous. Few politicians—JFK, Nixon, and Clinton come to mind—could pull off such an act. What McCain and his aides need is the sort of conceptual leap that Truman and his aides achieved: Fleshing out his communications strengths and highlighting them.
And while finding such a groove might seem self-evident, it is not a sure thing. Truman and his staff managed it, but Lyndon Johnson—also having to compete with the memory of his eloquent predecessor—did not. Neither, of course, did Carter, Ford, or the first Bush. That McCain and speechwriter Salter are still searching for that rhetorical fit bodes ill.
Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S.News & World Report. He is also the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).