Ronald Reagan's Rhetoric

Continuing the American political oratory tradition, Ronald Reagan joins Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as one of American history's greatest orators. Earning the nickname "The Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan's rhetorical skills propelled his political career, contributing to his gubernatorial and presidential election successes. As the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan benefited from his great oratory talent to guide the nation and advance his own popularity. By creating a 'rhetorical presidency,' Reagan used his speeches to symbolize the actions that would lead the nation to prosperity through the acceptance of his administration's conservative ideologies.

Ronald Reagan's speaking skill traces its origins to his freshman year at Eureka College, where he delivered a speech concerning budget cuts and a proposed student strike. Later, as a board member of the Screen Actors Guild and co-chair of the Motion Picture Industry Council, Reagan delivered speeches focusing on an alleged Communist threat in the motion picture industry. Reagan spoke to audiences such as Kiwanians, Rotarians, and American Legionaries, developing a talent and love for evoking audience reactions. As a representative of the General Electric Corporation, Reagan had the opportunity to travel the country, delivering speeches and refining his skills. Before entering politics, Reagan delivered thousands of speeches, preparing himself for a political career dependent upon effective communication skills.

Reagan's political speeches assessed Americaís unrealized potential. Praising the nation and people, Reagan's hopeful messages prophesied the realization of America's God-given destiny through repentance and reformation. Describing the speeches he made as President, Reagan himself argued that "I wasn't just making speeches--I was preaching a sermon." These "sermons" consistently contained underlying references to God, freedom, individualism, progress, and examples of real-life heroes embodying moralistic values. Reagan's speeches presented simple stories as the rationales for his beliefs and as the summations of all the world's knowledge. By delivering narratives climaxing in social, political and economic morals, Reagan added elements of example, creditability and entertainment into his speeches.

Ronald Reagan's acting skills certainly benefited his oratorical successes, permitting him to rely upon his television experience and understanding of the virtues of rehearsal. Television allowed Reagan to rely upon his expressive voice and emotional facial features. Reagan carefully planned and rehearsed his speeches to create the greatest impact upon his audience. Television viewers watched the emotional reaction of Reaganís live audience, assessed the importance of the physical backdrop, such as the Brandenburg Gate and Moscow University, and felt the attentiveness of Ronald Reagan himself to the varying emotional responses he evoked from them. Reagan understood that rational appeals could not sway an audience, but that emotions served as a common denominator to all types and classes of people, emotions that Reagan could skillfully elicit.

Reagan himself believed that the contents of his speeches explained his success. "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation--from our experience, our wisdom, and...the principles that have guided us for two centuries." Indeed, Reagan's greatest oratory achievements correlate with the moments when he conveyed his reverence and pride of American convictions and patriotism. Reagan's effectiveness and creditability diminished when he could not choose the themes of his speeches, forced instead to address controversial and distressing topics, epitomized in his speech concerning the Iran-Contra affair.

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