These Are the Most Eloquent Presidents (and How Donald Trump Compares)
We’ve had so many presidents — 45, to be exact — that it’s difficult not to compare them. Which presidents had the worst tempers, or felt the loneliest while in office? Or, which presidents spoke multiple languages, grew up in poverty, or went to an Ivy League college? There are parallels everywhere. So at some point, it also makes sense to ask which presidents were the most eloquent when speaking to the American people.
You could rank the most eloquent presidents by the reading level of, say, their first State of the Union addresses. But that’s not a perfect measure because it doesn’t capture how expressive or persuasive the speech is. To better determine which presidents were the greatest orators, we’ll have to rely on a more subjective ranking.
Read on to discover the results, based on a ranking by Richard Greene, author of Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events. And head to the end of the story to see how Barack Obama and Donald Trump compare to the most eloquent presidents in American history.
13. George W. Bush
Greene ranked the top presidential orators in modern American history — or since 1933, the year when Franklin D. Roosevelt “first used the new electronic media to forge a different kind of relationship with the American electorate.” He placed George W. Bush at thirteenth place on the list. Which means that he doesn’t really number among the most eloquent presidents at all.
Greene notes that many people have talked about Bush’s charisma and force of personality. But those qualities very rarely came across in the speeches he delivered as president. According to Greene, Bush “rarely ‘owned’ his speeches, possibly because he simply didn’t put in the great amounts of time often required to do so.” Bush never got good at working an audience. He performed badly at press conferences. And he “rarely displayed the ‘Authentic Passion’ in his speeches that characterize the greats, often seeming, instead, like he’d rather be doing something else.”
Next: This president didn’t deliver great speeches, either.
12. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter makes the list — but just barely, according to Greene. “Only in the aftermath of Watergate and with an opponent like Gerry Ford could someone with Jimmy Carter’s public speaking skill set reach to the Presidency,” the journalist quips. Greene doesn’t seem to think that Carter belongs on the list of the most eloquent presidents at all.
Americans liked Carter’s honesty and “quiet southern charm,” Greene reports. And many saw those as an antidote to Richard Nixon. But, Green explains, “Carter’s total inability to generate excitement, to move an audience, to show strength and carry the country to his vision puts him towards the bottom of this list.”
Next: This commander-in-chief wasn’t one of the most eloquent presidents, either.
11. Gerald Ford
Greene characterizes Gerald Ford as “an authentic and very likable man.” But the journalist notes that Ford, who was elected vice president but became president when Richard Nixon resigned, “didn’t have the oratorical or communication skills to have ever ascended to the presidency through the election process.” In other words, he’s not one of the most eloquent presidents, either.
According to Greene, Ford “just didn’t have the ‘oomph,’ the ‘Visual Language,’ nor did he understand how to work an audience. A great, healing president for the time, but could not display enough leadership skills to even beat a sub-par contender in the 1976 general election.”
Next: This president’s body language limited the impact of his speeches.
10. George H.W. Bush
It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that determines how effective you are when you speak. That seems to be a lesson that George H.W. Bush learned too late. Green reports that “People who know Bush 42 personally always comment on his charisma. Sadly, that force of personality seemed to have been replaced by the robotic, unnatural body language so famously spoofed on Saturday Night Live.”
Body language can play an important role in the delivery of a speech. And Greene reports that if Bush had let a little more of his charisma shine through during his speeches, he probably would have ranked higher on the list of the most eloquent presidents.
Next: This president had a refreshing speaking style.
9. Harry Truman
Greene acknowledges that during his time in office, Harry Truman never became an excellent orator in the traditional sense. But that worked in his favor. “Truman’s conviction and plain-spoken, no ‘BS’ style are as refreshing and outstanding now as they were then.”
We think that Truman would appreciate the compliment, especially because he also lands on the list of the most foul-mouthed presidents in American history.
Next: This president’s authenticity lands him a place on the list of the most eloquent presidents.
8. Dwight Eisenhower
Dwight Eisenhower also belongs on the list of the most eloquent presidents, Greene reports for The Huffington Post. The journalist explains, “His ‘Beware the military industrial complex’ farewell speech was dwarfed, three days later, by JFK’s Inaugural Address, but it is one of the most candid and stunning speeches ever by a sitting American President.”
Greene adds, “Ike was a general, not an orator, but his genuine humanity and deep authenticity make him, in historical retrospective, one of America’s better speakers.”
Next: Despite his scandalous tenure in office, this president was a good speaker.
7. Richard Nixon
This one might sound surprising. After all, Richard Nixon probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when you try to list the most eloquent presidents. But his reputation as the figure at the center of the Watergate scandal — and as the president who ran on a platform that opposed the Vietnam War, and then expanded the war once he assumed office — obscures Nixon’s legacy as an eloquent speaker.
Greene explains, “We recall the personal flaws, but we often forget the broadcast quality voice, the big smile and the sense of reassuring conviction that Nixon often displayed.”
Next: This president’s personality got in the way of his public speaking.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson
Greene puts Lyndon B. Johnson next on the list of the most eloquent presidents. Johnson might have been able to achieve more as an orator. But his personality stood in the way of Johnson’s making real connections with his audience.
According to Greene, “His civil rights speeches were among the best in American history, but as a speaker, and a president, LBJ never dropped down his guard to really ever ‘connect’ with the American people.”
Next: This president could have been an even more eloquent speaker than he was.
5. Bill Clinton
Greene characterizes Bill Clinton as “a phenomenal communicator.” He also dubs Clinton “the most extraordinary one-on-one communicator ever.” But he reports that Clinton chose not to become one of the most eloquent presidents. “By his own choice, according to one of his speech writers that I interviewed, President Clinton purposely chose to simplify his speeches and make them less formal without the soaring oratorical flourishes that work audiences up to another level,” Greene explained.
It’s a good political strategy. But it does mean that Clinton falls a little short of the top of the list of the most eloquent presidents. One notable exception? The “What would Martin Luther King think?” speech Clinton delivered in Memphis.
Next: This president also lands in the top five most eloquent presidents.
4. Ronald Reagan
Greene characterizes Ronald Reagan as a “legendary” orator thanks to his Challenger speech — when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” — his charm at press conferences, his fatherly presence, and the polished delivery of all of his speeches.
However, Greene reports that Reagan doesn’t land higher on the list for a few reasons. Reagan didn’t “own” his speeches in the way that more eloquent presidents did, according to Greene. And he didn’t use visual language or demonstrate a clear grasp of details and nuances in his speeches.
Next: This recent president lands in third place.
3. Barack Obama
Greene put Obama at third place among the best presidential orators in modern American history. He reports that Obama “clearly and fully ‘owns’ his words” and also ” knows how to work an audience.” According to Greene, “Obama understands that the speech on the page or TelePrompter is not as important as the audience in the seats,” and he adjusts his speech, his body language, and his tone of voice in response to his audience.
The Los Angeles Times reports that presidential historian Douglas Brinkley also characterizes Obama as “one of the great orators in American history. He thinks in constitutional law terms that give him the spine for his speeches, his compass.”
Plus, historian Robert Dallek describes Obama’s speeches as “compelling and inspiring.” However, Dallek notes, “I don’t know if there’s a single line in an Obama speech that will resonate through history.” That stands in stark contrast with John F. Kennedy, who said in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Next: Obama didn’t speak as well as this president.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Greene reports that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “extraordinary first inaugural address” in 1933 set the bar very high for the presidents who would succeed him. Starting with that speech, delivered at the height of the Great Depression, when Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” he mesmerized Americans, who gathered around their radios to hear the president speak.
Greene explains, “Regardless of one’s views of FDR’s policies, this man was a force of nature and a model of how to use words, voice tone, and body language to lead a great nation.”
Next: This president was the most eloquent of all.
1. John F. Kennedy
Greene awards John F. Kennedy first place among the most eloquent presidents. In 1961, Kennedy delivered his “Ask Not” inaugural address, which was voted the second-greatest American speech of the 20th century by 137 scholars, Green reports.
Similarly, in his famed “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech in Germany and his foreign policy address at American University, Kennedy “redefined the concept of charisma in politics.” Greene adds that the “rare quality” of vision “solidifies JFK as America’s greatest modern era presidential orator.”
Next: How does Donald Trump compare to the most eloquent presidents?
How does Donald Trump compare?
Donald Trump isn’t exactly most people’s definition of “eloquent.” AOL reports that according to a recent analysis by Factbase, Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level, the lowest of our 15 most recent presidents. Of course, you could argue that his uncomplicated vocabulary makes him easier for everybody to understand. Or, at least you could if he were easy to understand.
As Vox reports, “When he’s speaking off the cuff, his rambling remarks can be full of digressions and hard-to-follow tangents. He often jumps to an entirely new thought before finishing his previous one.” But as linguists and historians point out, that’s because “Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read. Their seeming incoherence stems from the big difference between written and spoken language.” Some people find Trump’s speeches incomprehensible, while others have no trouble understanding him.
Next: Here’s why people like Trump’s speaking style.
Trump doesn’t use most of the tactics of sophisticated orators
Donald Trump may not belong on the list of the most eloquent presidents simply because he doesn’t use a lot of the tactics of sophisticated orators. Instead, he uses “time-tested speech mechanisms that salesmen use.” He makes his claims sound more trustworthy by adding, “Many people are saying,” or “believe me.” He strengthens associations by repetition. And he addresses his audience as “folks” to communicate that he’s one of them.
But that’s not the only reason why Trump’s speeches resonate with his supporters, despite his unconventional speaking style. Vox reports of Trump’s audiences, “Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level.”
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