Glued to the radio, I was enchanted as the silver-tongued 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented his “fireside chats” to rally hope during the Great Depression.
Earlier, in his inaugural address, Roosevelt had called for courage in these ringing words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
During World War II, he declared Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor would “live in infamy,” called America “the arsenal of democracy,” and promised “a better world founded on human freedoms.”
Roosevelt, incidentally, became the first president to speak on television.
For sheer eloquence – rhetoric that is vivid, fluent, graceful and persuasive – President Ronald Reagan is one of the best in modern times, in my opinion.
My wife and I had a ringside seat as be addressed the recent American Legion national convention at Salt Lake City. Of course, I’ve made it a point to hear on television his speeches before Congress.
At the Salt Palace, Reagan brought tears to the eyes of many veterans with stories of patriotic and heroic deeds by soldiers in wartime.
Here, from memory and research, are a few other examples of lofty presidential language. Perhaps they will spark some memories of your own:
Woodrow Wilson was the first president to speak on the radio. That was before my time but a biographer said he had a “beautiful” speaking voice to complement his scholarly background as a past college president and New Jersey governor.
Obviously Wilson was both eloquent and convincing as he rallied Congress and the public behind his 1917 request for a declaration of war “to make the world safe for democracy.”
Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge was a man of few words. But there was artistry in his pithy truisms that are still quoted today. To cite just one: “There is no dignity quite so impressive and no independence quite so important as living within your means.”
Harry Truman was a “common man.” Generally (not always) his rhetoric was more practical than high sounding. But Truman had lofty ideas which he expressed even in his private letters. As early as 1913 e wrote Bess, his future wife: “How does it feel to be engaged to a clodhopper who has ambitions to be chief executive of the U.S.?” The language was down to earth but the dream was eloquent – and it came true!
During the 1948 campaign, when critics were blasting Truman’s NATO role and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, HST’s statesmanship showed in a letter to his sister: “It is more important to save the world from totalitarianism than to be president for another four years.”
He, of course, won the election in an upset over Thomas Dewey.
Perhaps Dwight Eisenhower’s deeds had a stronger label of eloquence than his oratory. Nevertheless he was a respected, persuasive and much-loved speaker. His expressive face, warm sincerity and personal charm contributed to his effectiveness.
A final example of lofty presidential rhetoric:
John F. Kennedy left a reputation for stylistic oratory. This was the conclusion of his inaugural address of 1961:
“The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”