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Reagan's gift of golden delivery

The 40th president introduced a bold rhetorical style, one succeeding politicians have had a hard time measuring up to.

June 09, 2004|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

President Bush has it, but only in one-on-one encounters. Rudolph W. Giuliani has it, but only in an emergency. Bill Clinton has too much of it; Sen. John F. Kerry, it seems, too little. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards seems to have it, "but you get the feeling he stayed up all night practicing," as one critic put it. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have it were it not for the way he says "Collie-fornia." Audiences, experts say, find accents to be wearying.

As Americans reflect this week on the legacy of the late President Ronald Reagan, the unspoken question has been: Who has what it takes to be the next "Great Communicator" on today's national stage? Not as a policymaker, not as a statesman, but in the realm for which Reagan will arguably be most broadly remembered -- as a master of delivery in the age of television.

"There you go again." ... "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" ... "Evil Empire." ... "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Love him or loathe him, Reagan was a rhetorical hit machine.

How many graying candidates could have mustered the grace of self-deprecation against charges that they were too old and out of touch to run for office? ("I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan joked in a debate, devastating former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.)

What other world leader, in the midst of massive budget deficits and an AIDS epidemic, would have gotten away with the corny pronouncement that it was "morning in America?"

What other modern politician could have pulled off the poetry that Peggy Noonan, then a young special assistant, ginned up for him after the Challenger space shuttle explosion? (Try standing in front of a mirror some time and declaiming, "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God," as if it were something a person might say ordinarily.)

"Reagan's reputation does create a shadow over his successors," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Such a shadow, in fact, that Reagan's knack for public presentation has become the stuff of rhetorical study: Jamieson devoted an entire chapter to him in her seminal book on the evolution of the political sound bite, "Eloquence in an Electronic Age."

Before Reagan, she says, politicians struggled, with varying degrees of success, to adapt their communication styles from the stump to the cooler and more intimate confines of television. "Richard Nixon had a good prosecutorial style and he argued well, but he looked uncomfortable," Jamieson notes, pointing out that the poignancy of Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech, in which he invoked his wife and his dog on television to plead for national forgiveness, was for him the exception, not the rule.

Presidents "Ford and Carter tried delivering speeches informally -- think about Carter's sweaters -- but they could never quite match the delivery to the moment," she says. "Part of it was that anybody who comes up as a stump speaker will adapt poorly to TV."

With his background as a sportscaster, an actor, a pitchman for General Electric, a lecturer on the anti-communist circuit in 1960s Southern California and as a governor who, even then, still wrote many of his speeches, Reagan had an intimate understanding of what worked with audiences and how to match words with images.

"Reagan made himself a major political figure through the force of his communications," says Noonan, who is now a conservative commentator. Long before he had speechwriters, she says, he was perfecting his style, which was inspired in large measure by the fireside chats of an earlier electronic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Reagan's 1964 "A Time for Choosing" speech, in which he made the case for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, is now regarded by some as the birth of the modern conservative movement, but Noonan notes that it was a speech he'd been practicing, in some form or another, for months on the rubber chicken circuit.

"He was a giver of regular radio essays and a newspaper column. He used to write these in planes and trains and automobiles -- the originals are all in the Reagan Library, I'm told," says Noonan, who calls those early works "amazing."

Far more than his contemporaries, he understood how the medium of television cried out for a style other than the high-flown rhetoric of the podium, says Robin Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguistics professor who studies the language of politics.

"Reagan understood that when you're in that little box in people's living rooms, you're sort of small, and the way you talk has to be more intimate than when you're in front of thousands of people," she says. "It's different even from radio, where you can't be seen but your voice permeates a room somehow."

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