The recently released C-SPAN 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey is an interesting, if predictable, snapshot of scholarly opinion about past chief executives. Honest Abe towers over the list, his position secured by history and his frequent postmortem appearances during the 2008 campaign and beyond. The rail-splitter has never been hotter. Look soon for some imagery morphing Lincoln and Che Guevera on a t-shirt near you.
Surprisingly – at least a bit – is that George Washington knocked Franklin Roosevelt out of the number two spot. Apparently the father of our country still trumps the father of modern big government.

Go figure.

Of course, recent retiree George W. Bush ranks in the lower tier – just above my ancestor (really) Millard Fillmore. But in fairness, a lot of modern historians have to actually die off before Mr. 43 will get much of a real without-the-venom look.

Richard M. Nixon ranks 27th on the list. Jimmy Carter ranks 25th. WhatEVER.

Clearly without Watergate, as well as every actual day of the Carter administration, Nixon would rank much higher. However, that’s asking a lot – even of historians. To so many, Nixon without Watergate would be like Kennedy without the Cuban Missile Crisis. In other words, the particular presidency defined by the crucial episode. However, it may just be that Nixon without Watergate would be more like JFK without the Bay of Pigs, or drugs and bimbos, but I am not going to win that one in most arenas, I know.

Jack Kennedy, by the way, moved from number eight to six in the recent survey. But again in all fairness – as with Lincoln, he did rise from the dead to campaign for candidate Obama.

These surveys analyze a president’s leadership in matters foreign and domestic. But I wonder what a ranking would look like if we tried to find out who the best communicators in the White House were?

It is quite clear that the public at large is enamored of our new president’s communication skills and, in fact, they are quite impressive. He is a gifted speaker and he knows how to use this ability very well. His predecessor was, by all accounts, not as accomplished as a speaker. It is like JFK following Ike. Both the great general and George W. had more than a few syntax challenges.

The list of presidents known as highly effective communicators usually includes Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Clearly that’s a solid list. Most would not instinctively put Richard Nixon on such a list, but he was in many ways one of the most effective communicators ever to rise to the presidency.

Nixon cadence may not now be recalled as Rooseveltian, nor do many remember his eloquence as matching that of JFK/Sorenson, but he was an absolute master of the spoken word in a particular method that is often overlooked – the extemporaneous speech.

By this I mean he spoke very often without notes – or just a few notes – though with extraordinarily thorough preparation. He used a written text for major remarks and addresses (acceptance speeches, inaugurals, Oval Office remarks, etc.). However, he never used a teleprompter – often to the chagrin of younger staffers and others (such as Billy Graham) who constantly encouraged its use.

It would be hard to imagine a leader today saying no to the teleprompter. It has become the well-traveled rhetorical road. Nixon stuck with the road less traveled.

Richard Nixon preferred to make a thoroughly detailed outline and then deliver the remarks sans notes. His famous “Checkers Speech,” which I have written about before, is a classic example of this. And throughout his career he used the same method – working out his thoughts on yellow legal pads and much of the time delivering them in a conversational manner. The concepts were fixed in his mind, but the language was that of the moment.

Some confuse extemporaneous with impromptu – but they are not the same. The former describes a method of delivering something very well prepared. The latter is “off the top” of the head, and Mr. Nixon despised this. In fact, history tells us that he really only did this once – when he gave his concession remarks after losing the California governor’s race in 1962. And we all know that didn’t turn out very well.

The key to Mr. Nixon’s ability to speak so effectively without notes was, I believe, his love for reading. He lived out what Francis Bacon famously said roughly 400 years ago: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

In his book In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal, Nixon wrote about reading and the presidency:

A president must spend many hours a day reading for work. He should not forget to read for pleasure. Theodore Roosevelt, the most prolific reader of all American presidents, once said he would never go anywhere ‘not even to the jungles of Africa,’ without books to read. On safari he always had a book or two packed in his saddlebag or pocket so that no opportunity for reading would be lost. I did the same thing in the jungles of Washington.

It is considered clichéd these days to say, “leaders are readers” – but it’s still true. And great leaders tend to be effective speakers – the kind of people who read before they speak, not just while the teleprompter is on.