NPR logo

What Makes a Great Political Speech?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Makes a Great Political Speech?


What Makes a Great Political Speech?

What Makes a Great Political Speech?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The best political speeches aren't always the ones that are well-written or well-delivered, says Michael Cohen, author of Live from the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the Twentieth Century and How They Shaped Modern America.


When we think of great presidential rhetoric, we might think of Washington's farewell, Roosevelt's four freedoms, and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Here's JFK accepting - he gave the famous New Frontier speech. He was accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. In it, he assigned government a new role in the lives of the American people.

(Soundbite of speech)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: The rights of man, the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men, are indeed our goal and are indeed our first principle.

PESCA: So is that really a great speech? I mean, for a leader's rhetoric to be vital, it has to surpass the usual platitudinous humdrummery (ph). Former speechwriter Michael A. Cohen has just published a book on that subject. It's called "Live from the Campaign Train: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America." Hello, Michael. How are you?

Mr. MICHAEL COHEN (Former Speechwriter; Author, "Live from the Campaign Train: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America"): Good morning. How are you?

PESCA: So, I asked that about Kennedy because he certainly was great on his feet, and he could turn a phrase. But when we listen to Kennedy today, it sounds even older than 40 or 50 years ago. There's the inversion of phrases like, "ask not" and "ask." You should just say "don't ask" if you want to speak plainly. So the question is, back then, did people just enjoy speechifying? Was it not seen as so foreign? Or has speech these days become so much less formal and more casual?

Mr. COHEN: You know, I listen to Barack Obama today on the campaign trail, and I hear a lot of similarities between his rhetoric and that of John F. Kennedy. I think the words may change, but I think what really makes a great speech is the ideas behind it. And like Kennedy 48 years ago, Obama is trying to cast a message that inspires and energizes voters. And I think one of the things Kennedy did so effectively was inspire Americans, inspire Americans to sacrifice, which is an unusual thing for a candidate to do and sort of a courageous thing to do, and it worked pretty effectively for him.

PESCA: Of the 31 speeches in the book, I think the first one is William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech.

Mr. COHEN: That's right.

PESCA: It's a big one. Everyone quotes it. You say it's the most influential and electrifying campaign speech in American political history. The most?

Mr. COHEN: The most. First of all, when he delivered, he was a relatively obscure Nebraska congressman and was certainly seen as a dark horse to be the Democratic nominee for president. But his oratory was so affecting, people literally jumped out of their seats screaming, throwing coats, and banging umbrellas against the floor at the convention and brought him on to become the nominee. But as far as influential, it was the first speech by a presidential candidate to really talk about expanding the role of government to help the welfare of the American people.

And at the time, that was sort of an unusual concept. You know, in 1888, Grover Cleveland had said, you know, the responsibility of government - of the people is to be loyal to the government, and government does not have a similar responsibility to the people. And he was a Democrat. And within eight years, we had a populous leader like William Jennings Bryan talking about the affirmative role of government.

PESCA: Right. And he scared the hell out of half the Democrats, actually, because he was an economic populist and a populist on issues of war. But my question is, when you read that speech on the page, does it jump out at you? Or was it very much helped by Bryan's theatrical performance?

Mr. COHEN: Absolutely. I mean, it reads very well, and there's some wonderful turns of phrase. But I think what - what makes it a great speech, in a sense, is the delivery, obviously, but also the context in which it was given. That's a hugely importance part of why a speech is great.

PESCA: Let's fast forward half a century. Here's a speech by Hubert H. Humphrey speaking about civil rights and states' rights.

(Soundbite of speech)

Former Vice President HUBERT HUMPHREY: I feel I must rise at this time to support a report, the minority report, a report that spells out our democracy, a report that the people of this country can and will understand, and a report that they will enthusiastically acclaim on the great issue of civil rights.

PESCA: OK. And there he goes on to say, you know, we have to walk out of the shadow of state rights, and it's a bright sunshine of human rights, great turn of phrase.

Mr. COHEN: Absolutely.

PESCA: Hubert H. Humphrey, William Jennings Bryan, a bunch of the guys in here didn't win. Great rhetoric, does it free you up if you not don't have a chance to win, but is there - is sometimes great rhetoric the enemy of getting elected?

Mr. COHEN: That's a good question. Not often, not usually, but it turns out that sometimes that great rhetoric ends up not necessarily being effective at that exact moment, but effective a little bit later. And the best example of that, of course, is Barry Goldwater, who, in '64, was probably going to lose that race no matter what he did.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. COHEN: He chose to give the most ideologically focused speech of any candidate in pretty much American political history, destroyed any chance of being president, but really shaped the conservative movement, and I think influenced the conservative movement in a very significant way and changed the direction of the party and the country. And there's a great story I have in the book about what George Will says of that speech. You know, it says an election Goldwater won, it just took 16 years to count the votes, which is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Oh, that's a great line. Now, there's a famous quote about speechifying going back to the Greek Republic, and it was comparing Cicero and Pericles, the two great orators at the time. And people said, you know, when Cicero gave a speech, the reaction was what a great speech that was, what great words those were. When Pericles gave a speech, the reaction was, let us all now follow Pericles, so it wasn't reacted to as if it were a speech. To bring it forward, are there certain politicians that you think fall in the Pericles camp? Great speechifying, not that actually inspiring to get you to do something, and others that fall into the - sorry, Cicero camp would be doesn't inspire you, Pericles camp would be does.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I would say the best speechwriter is the person who combines both. And that's actually - that's what we talk about in the book, is that, you know, you look back at a speech, like the "I Have a Dream Speech," and the words are beautiful, the metaphors are gorgeous. But what makes that speech great is not so much the words, it's the ideas behind it.

It's the powerful notion that King was talking about of the sort of idea of, obviously, equality and very much grounded in very basic American values. So, I think, really, the best speechwriters figure out ways to combine the two together to make really great speeches. But in the end, I mean, I think what it comes down to is you could have bad speech givers give great speeches if they find just the right words to inspire people.

PESCA: You were a speechwriter for Bill Clinton? Is that right?

Mr. COHEN: Bill Richardson, actually.

PESCA: Bill Richardson, OK.

Mr. COHEN: A little different.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah, but he has a nice beard now. I think that's freed him up a little bit.

Mr. COHEN: I think a little bit, yeah.

PESCA: Well, here's my question. I just want to lay that out there, because we know you're going to have ideological differences with George W. Bush and Michael Gerson. But Michael Gerson, his former speechwriter, now Washington Post columnist, has been lauded for writing great speeches for the president. My question is, can they really be considered great speeches if, when you look at them, it has George Bush promising things, like standing with people all over the world who want democracy, but not necessarily delivering on those things? I mean, we haven't intervened in Burma, last time I checked.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's one of those interesting dynamics. I mean, he - Gerson's speeches are really good, and he is a great speechwriter because he writes well for his principle. I mean, he understands Bush's style. He writes in such a way that - and he doesn't write for him anymore, obviously, but when he did, he understood how to write them effectively. But of course, yes, your point's absolutely valid. His second inaugural speech is a great speech that was not followed through at all. It doesn't change it being a great speech. Maybe it affects whether or not we think he's a great president or not, and I think...

PESCA: Well, I would argue it might. I would argue it might affect a great speech, because you could write the most soaring words, but if they're just empty words, then they're not that soaring. The reason that you think it's so inspiring, it's like a president saying it who can do something about the situation.

Mr. COHEN: Sure. That's absolutely true. Some speeches, if they sort of ring hollow, are not going to be as effective. I think, for an inaugural speech like that, that kind of soaring rhetoric tends to work. Although, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, sort of looked at it with a jaundiced eye, and for good reason.

PESCA: Senator Obama is a very busy man, so if he had a sec - ten seconds - one sentence that you could give him, advice-wise, what would you tell him?

Mr. COHEN: It's funny, you know, I was just thinking about this recently. You know, he's running sort of what I kind of call the Roosevelt card, in the sense that Roosevelt, in '32, ran basically on not necessarily embracing liberalism, which Bush has a fond amount of liberalism...

PESCA: Oh, but the thing is he needs a second - a sentence, do you got one quick? I'm sorry.

Mr. COHEN: He has to remember that people are voting to reject conservatism and not embrace liberalism.

PESCA: Love it. Michael A. Cohen, author of "Live From the Campaign Trail." Thanks very much, Michael. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.