Top 10 Best US Presidential Speakers
1. John F. Kennedy
Well, here’s one that hasn’t been forgotten. Fifty years ago, early June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University in Washington.
He called it “A Strategy of Peace,” and it was a direct appeal to Americans and to the leaders of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.Many historians consider it the best speech of his presidency.“A Strategy of Peace” was remarkable, both in its departure from hostile Cold War rhetoric and in its empathy towards the Soviet Union. It came just months after the two super powers walked to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy announced a unilateral above-ground nuclear test ban, called for better communication with the USSR, and a relaxation of tensions, that would eventually lead to “detente.”Kennedy’s appeal for peace was so direct and controversial that he kept the contents of the speech a closely-guarded secret even from his own cabinet.
The bar has been very high since the extraordinary first inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 (“The only thing to fear is fear itself”) and “fireside chats” that mesmerized a nation of families huddled about their radio boxes. The conviction, confidence, passion, intelligence and wit of FDR pulled our country out of the Depression, through the 2nd World War and into a “New Deal” between government and the people. 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.
3. Barack Obama
Barack Obama, at his best, in some ways is an even better orator than FDR or JFK and more accomplished than “The Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan, a trained actor and Bill Clinton, by far the greatest one-on-one communicator in politics, if not the history of mankind. Here’s why.
At his best…
a. Barack Obama clearly and fully “owns” his words. It is evident to me that on the most important speeches, (his 2004 DNC Keynote, his race speech, the Tucson speech) Obama either writes them entirely or has worked on every single word. There is no replacement for this and even the greatest delivery skills can not compensate for words that were birthed from within the very gut of a speaker.
b. Barack Obama knows how to work an audience. No president has ever been able to use rhythm, body language, pauses and punctuation and nuances in voice tone to “sing” a speech like Dr. King… but at his best Barack Obama comes closest. He has the capacity to play an audience as if it were part of his own personal orchestra and that is a level of mastery that few ever reach
c. Barack Obama uses all “4 Languages” of human communication to deliver his best speeches. This is very rare and one of the biggest things that separates the top 5 from the second tier and great speakers from good ones. It is the ability to excite an audience with energy, (“Visual Language”), give them a compelling story line to follow (“Auditory Language”), rest their anxieties as you show an unshakable grasp of the facts, details and nuances, (“Auditory Digital Language”) and, most importantly, to connect with, touch, move and inspire one’s audience, (“Kinesthetic Language”).
d. Barack Obama doesn’t “give a speech” when he gives his best speeches, he has a conversation. Many speakers “Perform at” their audiences or “Present to” their audiences. Obama, “has a Conversation WITH” his audiences, a quality that, like using the 4 languages, is seen only amongst the greatest political and business speakers.
e. Barack Obama understands that the speech on the page or Tele Prompter is not as important as the audience in the seats. His ability to respond to reactions from the audience, verbal and non-verbal, to insert humor and add or adjust his own words, voice tone and body language to the moment, is a supremely high art practiced well by only the very best speakers.
4. Ronald Reagan
But what about Ronald Reagan? His Challenger Speech, his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech, his warm, affable, charm at press conferences, his strong, fatherly presence and great delivery for all his speeches are legendary.
Ronald Reagan was a tremendous communicator and a great speaker and more consistently good than Barack Obama.
But he was never as good, in his speeches as President, as Barack Obama at his best. Ronald Reagan, despite his extraordinary skills and polished, practiced delivery, rarely owned a speech like Obama does, didn’t know how to work an audience quite like Obama, rarely used the “Visual Language” as he did in his earlier days (“The Speech”, 1964) and rarely demonstrated the grasp of detail (“Auditory Digital”) that JFK, FDR and Obama have.
5. Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton is a phenomenal communicator, a really talented speaker and, as noted above, the most extraordinary one-on-one communicator ever.But, 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. Politically it is a fine strategy, but this choice diminishes Clinton’s oratorical standing. One speech, however, that is included in “Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events”, his “What would Martin Luther King think?” speech in Memphis on the 25th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, did rise to the highest levels of great oratory and it is inspiring and magnificent.
6. Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson – 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
7. Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon – 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
8. Dwight Eisenhower
Dwight Eisenhower – 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. 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.
Harry Truman – Also not an orator, but Truman’s conviction and plain spoken, no “bs” style are as refreshing and outstanding now as they were then.
10. George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush – 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”. He would never have made it into the First Tier, but had he shown some of that personal charisma in his speeches, HW would have ranked higher.