James MacGregor Burns, Jack Valenti

The Art of Public Speaking

VTR Date: August 11, 1982

Guests: Burns, James MacGregor; Valenti, Jack


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: James MacGregor Burns with Jack Valenti
Title: “The Art of Public Speaking”
VTR: 8/27/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I started THE OPEN MIND in 1956, it occurred to me that the effort would hardly be worthwhile if you couldn’t recognize wisdom and insight and the many other personal qualities of real value that the public wants to share in those you know as well as in those you don’t. So that on occasion, just as I make friends here on THE OPEN MIND, I invite friends, too. One is James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and political scientist, the chronicler of the Roosevelt and Kennedy years whose new book, The Vineyard of Liberty, the first of his trilogy on what he calls “The American Experiment” has been published by Alfred Knopf. Another is my Hollywood friend and colleague, Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Lyndon Johnson’s key presidential lieutenant, whose new William Morrow book, Speak Up with Confidence, provides a kind of front-row view of contemporary political leaders as speechmakers, communicators, that challenges us to compare past with present.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today. And Jack, talking about past and present, I noted that when you write about how brilliantly John F. Kennedy came to speak to this nation, particularly in his extraordinary inaugural address, you comment that you had heard him in Texas some years before and he wasn’t that brilliant then. And then you quote Jim Burns here as saying about Kennedy’s inaugural address, his maiden speech really in the Senate in 1953, “Loaded with facts and specific proposals, the speech sounded very much like an economics lecture at the Harvard Business School. Kennedy spurned rhetoric and rhetorical eloquence. He did not bother with any stories, jokes, or even illustrate references for human interest”. I wondered – you know these presidents – why do some mange to turn from a Harvard Business School lecture to a brilliant first inaugural address, and others, perhaps like LBJ, never quite master the communication technique that you write about?

VALENTI: Well, as a graduate of the Harvard Business School, I felt a little uncomfortable with Jim’s analogy there.

BURNS: (Laughter)

VALENTI: But having vaulted over that, I find that unusual and puzzling that people of great, high public station don’t speak better, engagingly, lucidly, and sometimes eloquently. I think John Kennedy was the last great speaker we had as president until the accession to power of Ronald Reagan, who may be the great master of the small-screen living room environment. My own judgment is that – Jim was commenting about how Kennedy was so bad — the first time I heard him, he was very dull. But at some point in his career he was determined he was going to do better. And I suspect, though I do not know, that John Kennedy got someone to coach him and teach him and critique him and to make it possible for him to stand before an audience and hold them enthralled while he tired to persuade them and convince them, which is what leadership is all about.

HEFFNER: How come you didn’t convince Lyndon Johnson?

VALENTI: Well, Lyndon Johnson is an anomaly because in small gatherings in a closed room he was invincible, like a scythe cutting down a meadow. But he determined when he became president that the great skills that he used with such success as the parliamentary commander of the Congress were unsuitable as a president. So he became dainty and grandfatherly and wanted to be quite dignified. As a result, he became – and I say it with great affection and respect – boring. He did do well on a couple of his speeches. I thought the great “We shall overcome” speech at the Joint Session, his first speech to the Joint Session two days after he was elected, I mean, he became president after the murder of President Kennedy, were both extraordinarily well done. But they were the exception. I tried desperately to try to get him to loosen up, to be himself, to let this fantastic and overpowering tidal wave of a personality come through. But that went in one presidential ear and right out the other. On the other hand, as he reminded me on more than one occasion, he was president and I wasn’t.

BURNS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Jim, do you think that Jack’s emphasis on speaking up with confidence was as important in our past s it is now?

BURNS: Yes. I think, one reason I think this book by Jack Valenti is pretty important in the political realm is the tremendous emphasis we put on good speaking. And you might ask, “Why do we need presidents or public officials who speak well?” Because, as you suggest, it is partly a matter of training. And I was thinking back to Thomas Jefferson. He was a terrible public speaker. He was boring. He lost his audience. He didn’t speak up. He had none of the gimmicks. And yet he just happened to be, in my view, the greatest American president or American public leader we had. He wrote brilliantly, but he did not speak well. And I’d like to ask you gentlemen – you’re in this whole world, particularly Jack – why do we emphasize the public speaking so much? Does it mean that a Thomas Jefferson of the 1980s will not get anywhere because he simply cannot project, even though he may be the most brilliant leader we could imagine?

VALENTI: Well, I think, Jim, that it was the advent of radio in the Roosevelt era and then television in the late 50s that radically revised the whole political landscape. When Jefferson made a speech in Philadelphia, it would be maybe weeks before that speech ever reached Boston or to Georgia. And now, within a millisecond everything anybody says in Berlin is heard here. I think television ad radio have changed the whole political environment which makes the art of communicating difficult problems and difficult solutions that require sacrifice to the people who have to undergo those sacrifices. And they want to be led by somebody, I think, who can convince them. Look, a great salesman comes in to sell you lawnmowers or encyclopedias, and he’s very good at persuading you. That’s not bad. I don’t think that’s anti-intellectual or anti-ethical.

HEFFNER: Well you say it’s not bad, Jack, but I remember at the time of the first great debate, the Kennedy/Nixon first debate, Henry Steele Cominger wrote a piece, I think it was almost the next week, talking about speed in which you communicate, in The New York Times Magazine section. While Walter Lippmann said it had been a wonderful experience to have this confrontation face to face, Cominger raised the point that you did, Jim, said Jefferson would have lost, and it was demeaning to have this new instrument and to pick candidates on the basis of their capacity to debate in this way. So when you say it’s not such a bad thing, after all, to sell an idea, I wonder whether the question has to be discussed as to demeaning our political system, our political life through such an emphasis on what goes on on the outside rather than in the center. And I just wondered whether you respond to that in any way.

BURNS: Well, of course, we’re talking about, you were talking, Jack, about a particular kind of speaking. You’re talking about electronic speaking, as it were.

VALENTI: Yes, I am.

BURNS: And this raises the question, you know, with all the limitations, the time limitations and so on. Again my memory goes back – not my personal memory, but my historical memory goes back – to the Lincoln and Douglass debates. And there was Lincoln, who was not, again, a great, brilliant speaker. He would get up there, he would walk on the platform, kind of shamble on, you know, in his gawky way, and he would fumble for his specs, and somebody in the audience would say, “Put your specs on, Abe”, and he’d put his specs on, and so on. But those two men – and they were equally brilliant as debaters, but in very different ways – were able to hold an audience in a broiling hot sun for two or three hours. Women with babies in their arms, listening to the most intricate and complex presentation of the great issues of slavery. And that was an enormously educational experience. And on your point about getting it out to the country, of course, the newspapers quickly projected that out throughout the country. So that the question I would raise is whether that kind of really intense, comprehensive treatment of a subject is possible in a day when it’s the two-minute thing or the four-minute thing, the ability of a man or a woman on television to get right in it quick whether that’s not a great problem.

VALENTI: I, you know, as an amateur historian who reads all of Jim’s books with great enthusiasm…

BURNS: (Laughter)

VALENTI: …I’ve often wondered about that too. But I think, Dick, what we’re up against is reality. The truth is that the reason why several thousand people stayed in the sun to hear Lincoln/Douglass or 5,000 people when I was a ten-year-old boy would stand in the hot sun to hear Jim Ferguson and Ma Ferguson of Texas speak for two hours is because of a lack of anything else to do. But today when you have alternative entertainment and leisure choices, bowling and sailing and television and skiing and second homes and motorboats, today people don’t stand at rallies. That’s why the rally has died as an instrument of political instruction. You don’t have rallies anymore. Why? People don’t attend them. They are assaulted by other choices to spend their time. And second, television, as I said, has been an upheaval, just a great earthquaking rupture in the political environment. And as a result, today if you don’t say what you’ve got to say in ten minutes, people will tune you out because they have another channel. I used to tell Lyndon Johnson, “Try to go on television, but speak no longer than ten minutes, and advertise to the American public that you’re going to speak for ten minutes, from 10:00 to 10:10, so that two things don’t happen. First, you don’t have people say, ‘Oh. I don’t want to hear a presidential address; it’ll be too long’. They know it’s ten minutes. And second, you don’t blot out some poplar television program that people would be upset about”. Now those are the political realities today, Jim, that simply weren’t present in Jefferson’s or Lincoln’s day. They weren’t present in Woodrow Wilson’s day. Indeed, they weren’t present when I was growing up as a small boy. But they are very much part of the scenery today, and you cannot avoid it.

HEFFNER: What are the implications of those facts for the nature of our political system? I think that’s the question. What does it do to the presidency?

VALENTI: Well, I would tell you this: If Thomas Jefferson were living today, being the genius that he was, and recognizing what he had to do to capture people’s attention so that his Notes on Virginia could be understood, by jingoes, he would have learned to be a better speaker. I’m stunned at the work regimen of Jefferson, who rose early in the morning and studied Greek and Latin and read, filled his mind with all these wonderful things. He would have learned how to communicate better if that was what he needed to do.

HEFFNER: Of course, we don’t pick Jeffersons to begin with.

BURNS: Well, not anymore we haven’t.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re not implying that we don’t have them around. We don’t pick them.

VALENTI: Well, I’m saying to you that Robert Taft or maybe – not a Wilson, because Wilson was a great orator – I’m saying to you that anybody in our past history who today was reincarnated by some magical, divine intervention, would have to be able, in my judgment, to be able to teach and instruct and to convince and to persuade. And the only way you could do that today is through the medium of one-on-one contact which is possible only through television.

HEFFNER: You know, I was, in going back to The Vineyard of Liberty, Jim, I’m impressed at your involvement with the little man, and your concern with telling history through the small vignette. And I turned to that wonderful, wonderful description here in this book of the kind of small man that you were concentrating on, and then turned to your book on Roosevelt, The Lion and the Fox, your description of the writing and the delivery of the first inaugural address in ’33. And I just wondered whether it doesn’t feed on itself, whether the creation of a medium that puts its emphasis on ten minutes perhaps hasn’t depleted the capacity of the political system to tolerate the kind of incisiveness plus thoroughness that we knew in our past historians, past presidents, past politicians.

BURNS: I think the key to much of the great speaking of the past has been a tremendous sense of conflict. That is, that there were really tremendous issues at stake, as in the case of slavery, as in the case of Bryan, speaking of the great orators, the Cross of Gold speech, which I’m sure Jack could recite here with great skill. A sense of enormous stakes. And Jack, you were mentioning a bit before how we don’t have the mass meetings, but you know, we do have some mass meetings still. I’m thinking particularly of the kind of mass meeting that a Martin Luther King would have addressed. Now there was a great man who was also a superb speaker, as we all know. I think one reason he was projected is that there was an enormously important issue. I don’t need to remind you; you’re in the middle of the civil rights struggle. This is what I find lacking today. I would say today the problem is not just the lack of great speakers. And even a Reagan is not exactly a great, arousing speaker; he’s a very skillful speaker. It’s a fact that we have such a bland politics, in my view. It may not seem bland because of all the headlines. But compared to the great issues of the past, I think our politics is bland. And I would predict that in 1984 we’re going to have a conflict, a political conflict in this nation such as we haven’t seen in many years. And in that year – I don’t know who the characters will be, I presume Reagan will certainly be central – in that year you’re going to see a revival of great oratory and great public speaking. They’d better get a hold of your book fast, Jack, because…

VALENTI: (Laughter)

BURNS: …this is going to be the big year, for this reason: The Republicans – and I honor them for this – they have made up their mind as to what kind of a party they want to be. They have made themselves into the conservative party of this nation. I’m waiting on the Democrats. The Democrats are still trying to be all things to all people. And if the Democrats should decide in 1984 that they’re going to go as solidly but responsibly, I would say, to the left as the Republicans went solidly, and I would have to say, responsibly to the right, we’re going to have a year of oratory if nothing else.

VALENTI: I think Jim has hit on something that I have ruminated about and have written some about, and that is the issue business. I agree. You listen to Martin Luther King talk about the spiritual struggle to free a man’s soul. You know, there’s poignancy, there’s compassion, there’s pity, there’s pride, there’s sacrifice. And it makes you weep. But it catches the inner portions of your body and causes you to respond. But today we’re facing obscure issues. I call it villains without faces. There are no archdemons presiding over these recognizable barriers. We’re talking about monetary policy and money velocity and inflation and interest rates and balanced deficits, deficit, balance of payments, and deficits and taxes. All of these are calculated to make one’s eyes glaze over. And it’s very difficult to get passionate about M-1 and M-2 in the Federal Reserve System. As a result, it’s very difficult to get people charged up. I think your point about cosmic issue is precisely correct. We don’t have that today. These issues have become arcane and become clumsy and awkward because, like picking up mercury with a fork, Jim, where do you start talking about the monetary fluctuations?

BURNS: But aren’t the great speakers great simplifiers and dramatizers?

VALENTI: That’s true. FDR certainly was. I think that’s…And I think Ronald Reagan is very good at that sort of thing.

BURNS: Um hum, um hum.

VALENTI: But I’m saying to stir men’s souls, you need an issue like slavery, war and peace, the struggle for human justice, the compassion for somebody pressed against the wall because of circumstances over which they have no control. It is very difficult to stir people’s judgment with David Stockman’s budget figures.

BURNS: Jack, aren’t we getting the great, tough issue of, let’s say, ’84 or even ’82 in the recession or depression today? Aren’t we getting a lot of simplifying of the issues at this point?

VALENTI: That’s very true, and I think that your prophecy may very well be correct, because if we have not come out of this great chasm into which we’ve fallen, that is unemployment and all the other unhappy assaults on our life quality, I think that yes, they’ll be able to make the issue one that deals with human beings rather than with arithmetic and numbers.

HEFFNER: But as they speak about it, as they speak about this issue or these issues, to speak up with confidence, Jack, you’ve said speak for ten minutes and no more. And I wonder whether the great issues that Jim is identifying can really be dealt with in that way.

VALENTI: Well, Dick, I have to deal with reality. If one tries to leap into illusion, you’re going, you find yourself failing. I don’t find that a noble adventure, to know in advance that you’re deluding yourself. I’ve suggested to Lyndon Johnson – and the fact I suggested it doesn’t make it wise – that you take a great issue like Vietnam, for example, and you go on the air once a week for four or five weeks, ten minutes at a time, and you try to break this down. Why are we in Vietnam? Why is our presence in Vietnam important to the future security of the American family? What are our objectives there? What are we trying to do? So that you teach the American people. In my book, Speak Up with Confidence, Jim, I’m trying to say that the next American president has to be a teacher as well as a communicator. So I’m saying that if people are going to turn you off after 30 minutes, why speak 30 minutes? Speak ten minutes. Give them one side of the issue. Come back again and give then another ten minutes, until you have instructed, taught, persuaded, convinced the American people to follow you beyond the mountain top. And they will follow you because they believe in you.

HEFFNER: I remember in – what was it? – ’52, when Adlai Stevenson preempted I Love Lucy for a 30-minute program, for a 30-minute speech, at the end of which he received a telegram from some irate viewer saying, “I love Lucy, I like Ike, and drop dead”, because he had taken 30 minutes away from I Love Lucy.

BURNS: (Laughter) That’s right.

HEFFNER: You haven’t addressed the question though, Jack. You said you deal with reality. And you and I have talked about this many times.


HEFFNER: What does it leave us with? Yes, reality. What kind of political system does it leave us with if you take small enough chunks?

VALENTI: What do you think, Jim?

BURNS: Well, I think this kind of oratory that we’re talking about, this kind of…I liked your idea. You kind of, what I call “morselize” it. That is, you kind of break the thing down into manageable units. To me it sort of reflects a political system that’s so fragmented. And of course LBJ, he mastered that problem more than most presidents, but finally, I think, was defeated by it. You morselize these problems, you break them down in to manageable units, ten minutes at a time. I think that’s very attractive. And by the way, Reagan had done that on radio.


BURNS: But what I worry about is that if you morselize a problem, if you break it down too much, you devitalize it. You get away from the great, the terrible simplification that has to be done that Roosevelt did so masterfully. So I would always go back to the Bryan, to the Lincoln, to the Theodore Roosevelt, to the FDR, and in many cases to the LBJ, who could pull the thing together. You see, you keep talking about the system, and I’m glad you do, because I think our system is so basically bad, that our political system is so unmanageable that something has to be done about it. But I think that our oratory reflects that system rather than helping to deal with it. It’s part of the problem, to my mind, and not really part of the solution.

VALENTI: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that what there has been a breakdown in the structure of the political system. The Congress ahs been Balkanized and fragmented and no longer its it possible for the president to negotiate with the leadership of the Congress and have that leadership deliver on whatever it is they’ve agreed to because there are 435 members of the House and about 420 of them are their own person, and they have constituency concerns, they’re mavericks, they probably are on the Democratic side in the House. Most of the House members had a subcommittee. In the Senate, practically all the Republican members of the Senate are involved in some subcommittee or committee. So each of them is a duke in his own little domain. And you’re unable to coalesce. You’re unable to find a consensus, which is what our whole system is built on. And the founding fathers about which Jim has written so movingly in The Vineyard of Liberty decided that their study of the ancients said that you must have separation of powers and checks and balances in the system. And it has served us well. But in a new kind of an era now, with complex and abstruse problems, that system is not working now. It simply is not. And I don’t have any solutions except a presidential six-year term is one of the innovations I think would be helpful, given my knowledge of the presidency…is have a six-year term of the president, and non-eligibility for reelection, so that he can concentrate his efforts in six years to bring about these tangled, shattered threads and make some tapestry out of them that people would admire and follow.

HEFFNER: I’m aware that even as we videotape this program, Speak Up with Confidence is on best-selling lists. And I wonder whether that indicates, Jack, that people have something to say and want to have confidence in the way in which they say it, or whether this is a means of avoiding the fact that there are many, many, many vacuums and people just want to know how to speak up, and you provide a guide for them to do so.

VALENTI: Well, again, I yield to Jim Burns on things like this. I think he’s one of the wisest men in this country, and he’s thought about these issues far more than I haven and most Americans have. My own feeling is though that there are only two ways to communicate with people: you write something that they read; or you say something to them that they hear. I don’t know any other way to make an impression on another person. And I think it’s important to do both well, if you’re in business or you’re in a civic club. But in the political world, it is absolutely essential that you’re able to communicate with people that you have been chosen to represent and whose purposes you have by solemn oath sworn to serve. Now, if you can’t communicate with them in a lucid, understandable and engaging fashion, I think you are crippled to that extent. That’s all I’m saying.

HEFFNER: Of course you speak from a certain vantage point. You were here with Don Rumsfeld, spoke about the six-year term for president. You were here with John Chancellor and spoke about protecting the president from the vantage point of your years in the White House. The thing that concerns me is that you have something to say, so you can speak up with confidence. Jim has something to say; he can speak up and write up with confidence. It seems to me so often in our political system today that there is not that much to speak up about, and that’s why I thought Jim was saying maybe in ’84 it’ll change.

BURNS: Yes, and I’d add something else. You were mentioning earlier the less-known people. And you know, we talk so much about the great leaders, but there are other people at the grassroots who really carry on the business and government of this country. I have a little theory about something I call the third cadre. The third cadre are those local activists – they’re not the mass public – they’re the local activists. And in the old days, we had a wonderful vehicle for these people, and that was the party convention. Not only the national convention, but the state and local conventions. And when your old grandpa said, “Oh, in the old days we painted the town red politically”, he was not talking about a national convention; it was probably a little cobby convention in a little town.

VALENTI: Yes, sure, sure.

BURNS: And it was the big talk of the day, and everybody knew about this. And some of the great oratory in American history came out of these conventions. Not just Bryans’ Cross of Gold, but countless other examples. Now, I mention this because along with all the great events and television and all the rest that we’ve been talking about are these people at the local grassroots who are trying to communicate in the fashion you’re describing. And there again, I think this book is going to help them. But again I go back to the system and the fact that today we don’t have two parties that have these conventions that give these people a chance to do their thing.

HEFFNER: We’re going to have to teach them to speak up with confidence. Thanks so much for joining me today, James MacGregor Burns and Jack Valenti.

BURNS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.