Only weeks removed from our next national elections, now seems the appropriate time to reflect again upon the recent passing of this generation’s most popular President, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Tributes to our fallen President filled the airwaves in the hours following his death. I was especially intrigued by those that honored his skills that earned him the moniker “the Great Communicator.” What did the men and women who earn their living by covering public figures who routinely speak to the masses find so remarkable about his abilities? What could I learn from him to improve my own speaking skills and those of my students?
Thankfully, analysts spent little time discussing his impressive natural traits: his broad shoulders and commanding appearance, his pleasant voice, or keen memory. Certain among us are born with such assets, while the rest of us must make due with what we have. Regardless, what tributaries noted most were the sorts of things all of us can learn, practice, and, hopefully, master.
“Well . . .”
It was the first word that routinely tumbled from his lips when he took the podium, and the last word he repeatedly uttered in his final months. After all other words deserted his memory, “well” remained.
One speech writer admitted to inserting purposely the word at the beginning of many Presidential addresses, but he did so only after observing how President Reagan naturally so used the word. His years on radio, film, and screen taught him the importance of the dramatic pause. He was humble enough, and wise enough, to realize that his lofty position did not insure his audience was ready to listen just because he was ready to speak. The pause drew them in, prepared them for what was to follow.
Haddon Robinson once claimed one of the great differences between a professional and amateur speaker is the professional is unafraid of silence. Watching a man who appears to be thinking on his feet can prove captivating for an audience. Amateurs mistakenly believe they must fill every second with words and thereby lose the very attention they were hoping to sustain.
Whereas most speech teachers emphasize the importance of gaining and retaining the hearers’ attention, Duane Litfin maintained it is more appropriate to aim for gaining and regaining attention. People’s minds naturally wander, no matter how engaging the speaker. A wise communicator will understand the importance of well-timed pauses throughout his presentation.
The Great Communicator took office during a turbulent and distressing time in our nation’s history. Watergate, “stagflation,” and the Iran hostage crisis were all either recent memories or current realities. America appeared weak to a watching world and took no pride in what she saw when looking into the mirror. Then along came President Reagan talking about a city set on a hill that still gave hope to lovers of freedom. He talked about what was right with America and what could be even better. His words met with cynicism, but he never retracted them. He continued to believe, and soon a nation believed with him.
When asked what they want to hear when they attend church, people answer time and again, “good news.” Isn’t that precisely what “gospel” means? How is it then that the way we preach the gospel makes it sound like something other than good news?
Admittedly, God gives different gifts to different people. The “prophets” among us tend to see the glass as half empty more often than half full. Still, don’t we have reason to smile every now and then, to evoke a few “Amens!” along with the “Oh, mes”?
Detractors might want to argue that “Dutch” Reagan’s optimism was a natural part of his disposition. I am not so sure. Remember, he grew up under an alcoholic father. He was disappointed with his Hollywood role as the “Errol Flynn of B-movies.” Disillusionment with the politics of his acting guilds pushed him from the Democratic to Republican Party. He had reason to be a pessimist but chose otherwise.
People who believe in the inherent goodness of man have never ministered where I have. Life is tough, and people can be mean; but when we allow our circumstances to determine our outlook, we lose the optimistic note our audience longs to hear. How does a preacher retain that note? Same way as “Dutch:” realize how far you’ve come since you left your old father’s house (John 8:44) and never lose sight of how good it will be (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Speech writer Peggy Noonan called President Reagan a speech writer’s dream because you always knew what he stood for. His presidency was only weeks old when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” His own foreign security advisers were taken aback, but he never apologized. To Ronald Reagan communism was evil, the desire for freedom was universal, and America was the model to follow.
None of us who truly preach the Word can be considered politically correct, but how often do we pull our punches when stating our beliefs? There is a time to be graciously reserved and a time to be boldly forthright. Blessed is the preacher who knows the times.
I have sometimes joked that to keep myself out of trouble I will start ending my sermons with, “But then again, what do I know?” People really don’t want to hear that. They come to church wanting to know what God says. As long as we remember that we are not God but under a solemn obligation to report what God has said, our hearers may agree or balk but they will not ignore us.
Tributaries recalled the President’s wit. The canned joke, quip, and protracted anecdote all found a place in his rhetorical repertoire. More often than not, he made himself the butt of his jokes.
When he ran for re-election, everyone knew Walter Mondale would make Reagan’s age an issue. In a televised debate the President admitted that some saw age as an important part of the race, but he was determined not to exploit for personal political gains the youth and inexperience of his opponent. Mr. Mondale laughed, the house roared, and the race was essentially won.
If everything we say we believe about God and eternity is true, we preachers have the most important job in the world. We who train preachers are doubly blessed and more accountable than most. Still, we must keep our sense of humor. A wise man once remarked, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” Stepping back to see the humor in it all, even to see our own absurdity, can make us into more engaging speakers.
Those close to the President said, “What you saw was what you got.” He was the same man in private he appeared to be in public: gracious, humble, and friendly. He was a polished politician without wax to fill the cracks.
Our word sincerity traces its origin back to the potter’s shop and the practice of stamping “without wax” on the bottom of the vessels he sold. What the buyer saw was what he actually took home: a whole vessel without a misleading veneer.
Aristotle called it ethos, what an audience will believe even when they remain unsure of the speaker’s arguments. All of us are cracked vessels. We have our faults. People are willing to accept that.
To become one of us so He might redeem us, Jesus had to humble Himself (Philippians 2:7-8). His was a step down, not up. King David wearing the robes of royal splendor humbly confessed God had to “stoop down to make me great” (2 Samuel 22:36). Indeed, to reach any of us He had to bend mighty low. We preachers would do well to remember and occasionally admit it.
This younger generation especially wants us to admit our faults. What no one wants, though, is too much information. How do we balance a concern for self-disclosure with good decorum? Those closest to the President admitted that even though to know his public persona was to know his private persona, there remained a depth to the man few people really knew. Sincerity, yes. Superficiality, no. So in us should be found a genuine sincerity that gives indication of a depth of thought, spirituality, and life that goes deeper than our pulpit persona.
I find it appropriate that a man who once occupied our nation’s “bully pulpit” was affectionately known as the Great Communicator. Hopefully, marking the habits that made him great will make all of us a little better.
Gregory K. Hollifield is Chaplain with Youth for Christ in Memphis, TN, Adjunct at Crichton College, and Adjunct Professor (2004-2005) at Mid-America Theological Seminary.