Lessons from 75 Years of Presidential Speeches

Seventy-five years ago today, October 5, 1947, Harry Truman gave the first televised presidential address from the White House. Truman spoke to the nation—or at least to the 44,000 American households that had TV sets at the time—about the continuing shortages in Europe following World War II and the need for Americans to conserve food to help the people of Europe. Another 40 million or so Americans had the capacity to hear—but not see—Truman via radio.

Truman’s speech was not the first time a president had appeared on TV, but address started a new and now familiar routine of the live televised speech to the nation: All of Truman’s White House addresses after that would be televised, and soon TV would eclipse radio as the way the Americans got their messages from the commander in chief.

The triumphs and missteps of the past 75 years have provided a playbook for Truman’s successors, one that could be useful for Joe Biden, whose biggest speeches have been too sharp and too partisan, especially for a president who was elected on the promise of uniting America. The lessons began with Truman’s successor. Dwight Eisenhower understood the importance of television, hosting the first televised presidential press conference, and even hired a well-known actor, Robert Montgomery, to help with his performances. When Ike was preparing to leave office in 1960, he and his speechwriters worked for months on a farewell address, the famed “military-industrial complex” speech, which imparted a warning he wanted to leave to the nation upon his departure.

Jack Kennedy was far better on TV than Eisenhower and recognized that TV was instrumental in his 1960 presidential victory. “We wouldn’t have had a prayer without that gadget,” he said after watching a tape of televised campaign appearances. He also was the first president to do his press conferences live and unedited on TV, where his quick wit had the reporters begging for more. Kennedy’s key televised address was his September 12, 1962, Rice University speech pledging to get America to the moon within a decade. This speech spoke to the aspirations of the American people and helped inspire a generation.

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