Skip to main content

Presidents' best phrases are tweetable

By David Kusnet
November 19, 2013 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
David Kusnet says the most influential and powerful presidential speeches have conveyed complex ideas in few words.
David Kusnet says the most influential and powerful presidential speeches have conveyed complex ideas in few words.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Kusnet: The Gettysburg Address was only 278 words, JFK's best talks were brief
  • Twitter didn't dumb down speech, he says. A few words can relay complex ideas
  • "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" just 78 words
  • Kusnet: Many short phrases kicked off change: Those who speak simply are remembered

Editor's note: David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a principal and senior writer at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public relations firm.

(CNN) -- Today, the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. All 278 words.

Three days later, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans will recall his most moving speeches, also crisp and concise.

The lesson is clear: To express big ideas, use few words.

David Kusnet
David Kusnet

New media, such as Twitter and texting, demand brevity. But brevity is also important if you're communicating as Americans did before "tweet" became a noun and a verb. The newest technologies reinforce the oldest technique of effective writing and speaking: Keep it simple.

Although the Gettysburg Address was deceptively simple -- 10 sentences, consisting mostly of one or two-syllable words -- it communicated complex concepts. As the historian Garry Wills has written, by stressing the egalitarian ideas of the Declaration of Independence, "Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."

Lincoln's new vision of "a new nation, conceived in liberty," rather than a loose federation of states, foreshadowed a national government that takes the lead in protecting the rights and promoting the well-being of its citizens.

JFK said \
JFK said "Ich bin ein Berliner" in Berlin in 1963, a simple phrase that helped cement U.S.-West German ties.

Ken Burns: Learn Lincoln's words by heart

Almost a century later, President Kennedy looked to Lincoln's oratory as a model of clarity. Preparing his inaugural address, Kennedy asked his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, to read every previous inaugural and also the Gettysburg Address. As Sorensen later recalled, he was impressed by how "Lincoln never used a two- or three-syllable word where a one-syllable word would do, and never used three words where one word would do."

Sorensen's early drafts reflected this lesson, and, as historians and memoirists have agreed, Kennedy's revisions made the speech sparer still. The most memorable line -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- includes only one word (used twice) longer than one syllable.

Lesson from Lincoln: Mr. President, you're talking too much

Still, some despair that Twitter has dumbed-down public speech. They should re-read history. Long before Twitter, TV sound bites, telegraph dispatches and tabloid headlines all put a premium on big ideas, briefly expressed. The best way to grab someone's attention has always been to say something simply.

Spotted: Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg?
Gettysburg Address 'presidential poetry'

Let's look at some of the most memorable lines from the first inaugural addresses of four 20th century presidents. Although written before Twitter, they are tweet-able: 140 or fewer characters. And they foreshadow big ideas in their presidencies.

50 years after JFK's famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech

Kennedy's entire "Ask not ..." takes only 78 characters, yet it is credited with motivating movements from the Peace Corps to the civil rights struggle.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Eminently tweet-able -- only 44 characters. And he restored Americans' self-confidence, making possible the "bold, persistent experimentation" of the New Deal.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan said, "Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem." With these 72 words, he set the stage for cuts in federal taxes and social programs.

In 1993, the most quoted line in Bill Clinton's inaugural was, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." The longest line of the four -- 85 characters -- but still tweet-able. As a speechwriter working on the inaugural address, I remember the sighs of relief when its relative brevity -- 14 minutes -- briefly convinced The New York Times' language maven, William Safire, that "Clinton proved he could edit himself, a happy augur of discipline elsewhere," presumably in Clinton's economic and social policies.

To be sure, memorable lines must be rooted in thoughtful speeches. "Ask not," "Nothing to fear," and "Government is the problem" succeeded because they were clarion calls for historic endeavors.

But history is kindest to those who speak simply. As Muriel Humphrey reportedly advised her eloquent but often long-winded husband, Hubert Humphrey, in order to be immortal, a speech should not be interminable.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Kusnet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT