A president, like everyone else, is shaped by his media environment, and if he is good, he shapes his communication to fit that environment. Lincoln lived in an age of print. Oratory was important political entertainment; but with no broadcasting, his words reached large audiences outside the immediate vicinity only by print. His speeches were published in the newspapers of the day and composed by him with that in mind. He spoke for readers of the printed page, not merely for those listening. His words moved voters far from the sound of his voice because of his writing skills, his intellectual power, his grip on the core issue of his time and his sublime concept of his nation's meaning.
Franklin Roosevelt mastered the fireside chat on radio, Kennedy the formal address on television, Bill Clinton the more casual messages. Of course, modern American television audiences would not tolerate the three-hour debates Lincoln had with Stephen Douglas, or his longer speeches—but that was a different age. Lincoln was adaptable enough that he could have mastered modern modes of political speech—today's sound-bite culture—had he lived in this era. He had a talent for getting to the point.
Lincoln avoided the fancy and artificial. He used the rhetorical devices that the rest of us speechwriters do: alliteration ("Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray"; "no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet"); rhyme ("I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views"); repetition ("As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew"; "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground"); and—especially—contrast and balance ("The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present"; "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master"; "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free").
He used metaphors, as we all do, both explicit and implicit: think of the implied figure of birth—the nation "brought forth," "conceived"—in the Gettysburg Address. He would quote the Bible quite sparingly, but to tremendous effect. See how he ends the monumental next-to-last paragraph of the second inaugural: "Yet, if God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are True and Righteous Altogether.' "
But the triumph of this greatest example of American public speech did not come from devices alone. Lincoln had in addition two great qualities infusing his use of those devices. First, he had a poetic literary sensibility. He was aware of the right rhythm and sound. An editor of the Gettysburg Address might say that "Eighty-seven years ago" is shorter. Lincoln wrote instead, "Four score and seven years ago."
And, finally, he had the root of the matter in him. The presidents greatest in speechcraft are almost all the greatest in statecraft also—because speeches are not just words. They present ideas, directions and values, and the best speeches are those that get those right. As Lincoln did.
Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy, is the author, most recently, of Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.