º Truman Assignment Page
º Renka's Truman Links
Harry Truman's Theory of Rhetoric
Thomas B. Harte
Paper Presented at Harry S Truman Library
Independence, MO April 1995
Truman historian Alonzo Hamby observes that over the years since he left office, the American people have made Harry Truman into something of a "folk hero."1 There is certainly no question about that. A few years ago you may remember there was a popular rock and roll song with the refrain "America needs you Harry Truman." In the last presidential election campaign, you may recall, both George Bush and Bill Clinton explicitly claimed the mantle of Harry Truman. Clinton, in fact, officially kicked off his campaign on Labor Day with a speech delivered in front of Truman's statue in the Independence town square not far from here.
Why this admiration for Harry Truman? Is it merely the residue of esteem accorded a president who was popular during his term of office? Obviously not, for Truman's low approval rating at the completion of his term rivaled that of Richard Nixon's during Watergate.2
Is it gratefulness for an administration during which the economy prospered? Not necessarily, for though the economy during the Truman years was, on balance, good,3 it was sometimes shaky. Moreover, other administrations have compiled stronger economic records.
Is it nostalgia for a time when things were peaceful and placid? Hardly, for the events of the Truman years were among the most momentous that this country has ever had to face.
Rather our current fascination with and esteem for the Man from Missouri has less to do with what happened while he was president and more to do with our perceptions of the man himself. And those perceptions, of course, are shaped, as they always are, by rhetoric, what people say and how they say it. A person's rhetoric, after all, reveals his or her characteristic way of dealing with the world. Even today, in an era of ghostwriters and media consultants, it gives us some index to a person's character. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it, "Language most shows a man. Speak that I may know thee."4
Just as Roderick Hart has suggested that John F. Kennedy's greatest legacy as president may well have been his rhetoric,5 I would suggest that Harry Truman's rhetoric, though of a decidedly different stripe than JFK's, also constitutes one of his chief legacies and is responsible as much as anything else for the position which Truman holds today in the minds of most Americans. Truman's brand of rhetoric is the quintessential example of what ancient rhetoricians called the "plain" style, a classification which first appeared around 86 B.C. in the Latin work the Rhetorica ad Herenium. That work identified three kinds of style: the Grand, the Middle, and the Plain. The Roman orator, Cicero, whose speeches Truman had read, sometimes translating them from the original Latin6, referred to these as the three complexions of eloquence and the Roman teacher Quintilian suggested their proper use. He argued that the Grand Style was best suited to moving the feelings, the Middle Style to pleasing or conciliating, and the Plain Style to stating the facts.7 The latter was pure Truman.
No one ever accused Harry Truman of being eloquent. Analyzing his rhetoric, Halford Ryan observes, "Harry Truman was not a Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman knew it, his speech staff knew it, and the American people . . . quickly came to understand that fact."8 Robert Underhill agrees when he observes, "No one ever claimed that Truman was a sparkling orator in the Bully Pulpit."9
Roderick Hart's computerized analysis of Truman's language confirms these conclusions. Using his DICTION program Hart discovered that Truman's style was pragmatic and absolute. As he put it, "Truman used the plainest of plain-speaking" even in situations which conventionally demanded a grander style.10
We know, for example, that instead of instructing his speechwriters to polish his speeches, Harry Truman insisted that they "depolish" them, to use George Elsey's term.11 By this he meant that all traces of flowery language or extra words be removed. No wonder, then, that in contrast to FDR, Truman's speeches are known by their date, location, or subject matter, not some memorable phrase or slogan.
The structure of Truman's speeches was similarly simple and straightforward. He employed what rhetoricians call the didactic method as opposed to the implicative method, i.e., he characteristically stated his argument and then offered support without a trace of subtlety. It is a structure which is devoid of rhetorical climaxes12 and one which relies on information and evidence as the primary mode of persuasion. As Elsey remarked, "Truman had an appetite for facts, plain and unvarnished, and lots of them. . . . [He] seemed convinced that he could prove a case if only he had enough facts."13
So Truman's rhetoric was characterized by its straightforwardness, simplicity, and lack of pretense. And it is that plain style and the man that it reveals which appeals to us in this day of spin doctors, photo ops, and slick public relations, a day when plain speaking is no longer ordinary.
Truman's speaking seemed to be based on a theory or philosophy of rhetoric that is likewise uncomplicated. In essence it is a theory which maintains that substance is more important than style, that ideas produce understanding whereas language may confound it, that persuasion and education are synonymous.14
How conscious was Truman of this approach or theory? Do his speeches simply reveal the habitual patterns of someone unmindful of the importance of rhetoric, or are they the products of a more or less carefully reasoned philosophy? The answer is pretty clear. Truman adopted his particular style of rhetoric not because he didn't know any other way (though he didn't), not because he felt unsuited to other styles (though he surely did), not because he was oblivious to the power of rhetoric, but because of deeply held convictions about the nature of communication and persuasion.
As close as Truman ever came to spelling out these convictions, i.e., stating his theory of rhetoric, was in an interview which he granted in 1953 to two speech professors from Western Reserve University, Eugene White and Clair Henderlider.15 In that interview the former president disclosed a theory of rhetoric that is typically Truman.
For example here's how Truman saw the function of the public speaker:
People don't listen to a speaker just to admire his techniques or his manner; they go to learn. They want the meat of the speech--a direct statement of the facts and proof that the facts are correct--not oratorical trimmings.16
Throughout the interview Truman maintained the view that persuasion is, or at least should be, an essentially cognitive process. For example, when asked if he made any effort to link his arguments to the basic drives and motives of his audience he replied:
I know little about such techniques and have never consciously used them. . . . If you have the facts, you don't need to work on emotions. I am not constituted to use demagoguery. I believe in letting the facts themselves persuade the audience."17
He further underscored the role of information saying: "I can't emphasize too strongly the importance of getting the true facts; a man must know what he is talking about and know it well."18 Incredulously, he told the following story to drive home the point:
Recently a prominent person in the government was asked why he stumbled in reading a particular speech. He replied that since he hadn't written the talk, he did not know what was in it. Can you imagine anyone giving a speech and now knowing what he was going to say on the next page?19
Of course, the incident also makes a point about the importance of the speaker's integrity and honesty, what the ancients called ethos or credibility. Truman clearly understood that concept as well. He said:
As for sincerity, the public is quick to detect and reject the charlatan and the demagogue. It may be deceived for a brief period, but not for long. In my opinion, mere talent without intellectual honesty and accurate information is not enough to make a successful speaker. I've never said anything in a speech that I did not firmly believe to be right.20
Truman indicated that it was this concern about honesty and genuineness that led him to reject use of the teleprompter. He remarked:
I've tried the teleprompter and I don't like it. I do not care to fool people. If I'm going to read, I want the copy on the desk where I can see what I'm doing and everybody else can, too.21
In addition to sincerity, honestly, and knowledge, Truman believed, as did Aristotle, that good will is also an important component of credibility. He said:
A good speaker genuinely likes people; he respects his listeners. . . . Listeners have to feel a bond with the speaker; they aren't likely to if they believe he is a "high-hat" or "show-off."22
Truman expressed his preference for uncomplicated organizational structures when he said, "I believe an audience approves of Cicero's method, which was to state his case and then prove it. That is what I always tried to do."23 And he revealed that he did not consider organization to be a strategic matter but a rational one. In answer to the question of whether he had a favorite organizational sequence or consciously put his strongest arguments at the beginning or the end he replied, "No, I just present my arguments in what I believe is a logical sequence."24
Throughout the interview, Truman insisted that good public speaking is without artifice. In characterizing his delivery he maintained:
I try to deliver my speeches simply and directly. I don't go in for theatrics. I do not believe that the American people expect their speakers to be entertainers. After all, there is plenty of entertainment on radio and television.25
He concluded the interview by saying, "Sincerity, honesty, and a straightforward manner are more important than special talent or polish."26
So clearly Harry Truman had strong views about the nature and purpose of rhetoric. He was not necessarily, as Colin Seymour-Ure has written, insensitive to the use of rhetoric as an instrument of power,27 he simply adhered to a philosophy of rhetoric that was message-centered and cognitive-based. Certainly that philosophy could be criticized, and has been. Cabell Phillips, for example, says about Truman:
He was liked, he was admired, he evoked steadfast loyalty in many, but he could not inspire. People gave him their hands but not their hearts. He could make them laugh, but he could not make them cry.28
Even Elsey admitted that the Truman approach to rhetoric had its weaknesses when he wrote:
In retrospect I feel there may have been too much reliance on this simple doctrine of letting the facts speak for themselves. . . . We who helped him in the preparation of his speeches hewed so closely to his emphasis upon facts that there is little or nothing that may be termed eloquence in many of the most important pronouncements of the Truman Administration. . . . However, language that is too terse or too direct and unequivocal may close the door to negotiation or accommodation of conflicting views.29
These charges contain an element of truth, but they should not be surprising given Truman's conception of what the proper function of rhetoric should be. As far as he was concerned, his rhetoric was not deficient simply because some might think it unsophisticated. As Hart remarks:
Were he confronted with Phillips's claim, Truman would presumably inform Phillips that if a country needed prettier speech as its guide or a playactor in the White House to look up to and admire, it was a sorry country indeed and it should find another boy.30
Moreover, we ought not forget that as rudimentary as Truman's theory of rhetoric was, it served him and the country rather well after all. Truman's posture on communism, as Ryan reminds us, "remained a rhetorical constant in presidential persuasions for almost fifty years. . . ."31 His use of the so-called "challenger strategy"32 as an incumbent anticipated by nearly 40 years Ronald Reagan's successful use of the same approach. Truman's famed whistle stop campaign was as decisive and effective as any of the rhetoric of Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan and was probably the last non-media campaign for president. And Truman's farewell address, according to no less respected critics than Jamieson and Campbell, was a masterpiece.33
Thus, Truman's theory of rhetoric may be old fashioned, perhaps even naive, certainly primitive, but wouldn't it be refreshing if more politicians and public figures today subscribed to it? The fact that so many do not is surely one of the things that makes Harry Truman by contrast such an admirable man.
1. Alonzo L. Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challengers: From F.D.R. to Bush (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), p.53.
2. Ibid., p. 52. 3. Ibid., p. 61.
4. As quoted in Jane Blankenship, A Sense of Style: An Introduction to Style for the Public Speaker (Belmont, Ca: Dickenson Publishing Co., Inc., 1968), p. 11.
5. Roderick P. Hart, Verbal Style and the Presidency: A Computer-Based Analysis (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984), p. 97.
6. Eugene White and Clair Henderlider, "What Harry S. Truman Told Us about His Speaking," Quarterly Journal of Speech 40 (1954), p. 39.
7. Lester Thonssen, A. Craig Baird, and Waldo Braden, Speech Criticism, 2d. ed., (New York: Ronald Press, 1970), pp. 491-2.
8. Halford S. Ryan, Harry Truman's Rhetorical Presidency, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995), p. 8.
9. Robert Underhill, The Bully Pulpit: From Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, (New York: Vantage Press, 1988), p. 88.
10. Hart, pp. 71-2.
11. Underhill, Bully Pulpit, p. 75.
12. Robert Underhill, The Truman Persuasions, (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1981), pp. 319-21.
13. Ibid., vii
14. Hart, p. 72.
15. White & Henderlider, op. cit.
16. Ibid, p. 39.
17. Ibid, pp. 40-41.
18. Ibid, p. 39.
21. Ibid., p. 41.
22. Ibid., p. 39.
24. Ibid., p. 40.
25. Ibid., p. 41.
27. See Collin Seymore-Ure, The Political Impact of Mass Media, (London: Sage Publications, 1974).
28. As quoted in Hart, p. 73.
29. As quoted in Underhill, Truman Persuasions, p. vii.
30. Hart, p.74.
31. Ryan, p. 4.
32. Judith Trent & Robert Friedenberg, Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices, 3d. ed., (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1995, pp. 81-86.
33. Karlyn Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 198.