John McCain and the Truman Playbook

Is the Arizona senator about to make the same leap that the old Missouri haberdasher did?

By + More

ST. PAUL, Minn.—I just saw on CNN that the stage at the Xcel Center has been rebuilt with an eye toward giving John McCain a more comfortable, "town hall meeting"-style forum in which to speak tonight.

It sounds like they might be taking a page from the Harry Truman playbook, as I suggested a couple of months ago. (To be clear: If they are, it's a case of great minds thinking alike, not of anyone listening to anything I have to say.)

In July, I noted that McCain faces a similar problem this year that Harry Truman did in 1948.

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.

Truman faced not only a smoothly rhetorical opponent but also the oratorical ghost of his masterful predecessor, FDR.

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."

Truman even used this off-the-cuff style in his convention acceptance speech, which was largely ad-libbed. "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," I concluded in July.

If the revamped stage signals a different kind of speech rather than just a new sort of podium, the McCain campaign might have made that conceptual leap. But please, Lord, don't let it be like Elizabeth Dole's nauseating "Phil Donohue" performance from 1996.