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Communication Skills–Essential to (Presidential) Leadership

Well over a decade ago, while a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, some student publication, I believe it was the Virginia Advocate, the conservative student newspaper there, asked me to write a piece on whether or not then-President-elect Clinton’s was a strong leader. It was to appear next to that of a professor who saw that Democrat as a strong leader.

For some reason, the professor refused to have his piece appear alongside mine — and neither appeared in print. This being before blogs, I put my piece into the proverbial drawer; it never saw, so to speak, the light of day.

In that piece, I held that Clinton was not much of a leader because he was constantly shifting his positions in order to keep his standing with the public. He was not, I argued, a man of conviction. A leader stood by his beliefs and held firm even as public opinion shifted. A leader set the tone, told his followers what he believed needed be done, rather than turn to them for direction as Clinton did.

By this standard, my man Rudy Giuliani has proven to be a true leader. Setting the tone and standing firm even (or especially) in times of crisis. But, in the first few months of this premature presidential campaign, he has often had difficulty expressing himself. Decisive when in command, the former Mayor has frequently been (until the recent debate) equivocating and indecisive in pursuing the presidency.

It’s the ability to express himself where I underestimated Bill Clinton. Whereas I basically got him right by defining him as a poll-driven politician, someone who followed (rather than attempted to redefine) public opinion (after all, he was the guy who commissioned a poll on where he should take his vacation), I didn’t realize that he could use his considerable verbal skills (and charisma) to appear as a more decisive leader than he actually was.

Communication is key to leadership. It’s one reason Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez needs to resign. So far, aggressive congressional investigations have not been able to find that he committed any crime. But, he has blundered badly in explaining how the firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys. Republican Senator Norm Coleman, for example, “has lost confidence in his ability to lead the Justice Department..” The Attorney General wouldn’t be in this mess had he been able to explain how the Department went about doing something which was clearly the president’s prerogative.

To be a leader in the executive branch, it’s not enough just to do a good job (and keep from breaking laws), but you also have to be able to explain yourself to the American people — and to Congress. You need to be a good communicator.

It is such communication skills which make former Senator Fred Thompson a most appealing candidate to Republicans. He has demonstrated, as I’ve said before “ability to articulate conservative ideas.” And today, I read that my Athena, columnist Peggy Noonan pretty much agrees with me that Thompson is “running a great campaign.” Makes me feel good to see that her thoughts are similar to some I have already expressed, though she expressed hers with more grace and wisdom than I ever could.

Peggy notes, for example, the skill with which Thomspon responded to Michael Moore’s challenge to debate and writes that Thompson “thinks the one essential to modern presidential leadership, the one thing you must have now, in the age of terror, is the ability to communicate, and he reads himself as the best communicator.” In this great piece on Thompson, Peggy has more to say about Thompson and his campaign, so just read the whole thing, but this point bears repetition: Communication is an essential aspect of leadership.

BIll Clinton covered up his wavering stands and indecisiveness with his skills as a communicator. Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt use theirs to hold the nation together and to lead the world, improving both with their vision, their ideas and their policies. Had they not been able to express themselves as well as they did, they likely would not have accomplished nearly as much.

Unless my man Rudy shows better communication skills on the campaign trail (and he started to do so in the last debate), he will not have the chance to demonstrate as President of the United States the skills he showed as Mayor of our largest City. And it’s those very skills which make a man who has yet to show such leadership in executive office an appealing alternative for many Republicans.



  1. Semi-related and topical, reading several blogs today, my impression is that the reason most sensible people are reacting negatively to the Amnesty Bill is that the enforcement provisions (“triggers”) rely on assurances from the Bush Administration that the provisions will be enforced.

    The Bush Administration has Zero credibility on border enforcement.

    It’s not enough to have good talking points. You have to have to have credibility. I think this is one of the reason Giuliani, despite being out of step with the party’s base, is polling better than Romney, whose positions are much closer to what those of the base. One believes what Rudy says, even when one disagrees with him. Romney just doesn’t have a real record to show that he believes in his positions. Mrs. Clinton has a similar problem on the left.

    And then there is the comical spectacle of McCain, “Mr. Straight-Talk,” sputtering away in Washingtonese trying to explain how his amnesty bill isn’t really an amnesty bill.

    Communication skills are fine. But if you don’t have credibility, they aren’t nearly enough.

    Comment by V the K — May 18, 2007 @ 11:51 am - May 18, 2007

  2. More of Fred Thompson writing as if he actually has a brain. Nice to see in a presidential possibility. And (unlike Rudy) he’s actually a conservative.

    Comment by Maggie Leber — May 18, 2007 @ 12:06 pm - May 18, 2007

  3. Sorry, but Rudy just doesn’t pass your party’s battery of litmus tests. Dobson just gave him the Judas kiss.

    Comment by sean — May 18, 2007 @ 1:14 pm - May 18, 2007

  4. sean: thanks for your quality contribution.

    Comment by Vince P — May 18, 2007 @ 1:40 pm - May 18, 2007

  5. Dan, deft post! You avoided using the word elocution, thus avoiding being called an over-educated snob. ;o)

    Comment by HardHobbit — May 18, 2007 @ 2:02 pm - May 18, 2007

  6. Between the first and second debates Rudy started looking like a leader. After his horrible performance on the abortion issue in the first debate (one which I attribute as much to hoping to woo the base as his poor communication thus far), Rudy clarified–unapologetically so–his position on abortion (contributing in no small part, I imagine, to Dobby’s Judas Kiss). When Rudy told his anti-abortion audience in Houston that he supported the right to abortion, he looked for the first time like the leader we saw in New York five and a half years ago.

    Rudy’s pro-choice past is well documented, and his trying to hide or even down play it came off as shameless and immediately transparent pandering. In Houston he basically said, “this is where I stand; and if that is a deal-breaker for you, then don’t vote for me.”

    Due to traveling, I missed the second debate, and all I have heard about since was his little tiff with Rep. Paul. I cannot be sure if Houston was a one off, or if Rudy is going to start manning up. I am cautiously optimistic that it is the latter.

    Comment by Pink Elephant — May 18, 2007 @ 5:36 pm - May 18, 2007

  7. This is the major flaw of the president and his administration, that they can not, even if their life depended on it, communicate effectively with the American public. This is why their approval ratings are in the cellar and have been their forever and a day.

    Comment by HCN — May 18, 2007 @ 5:48 pm - May 18, 2007

  8. Good point, HCN. But, I wouldn’t go as far as you have for there have been times when the Administration has communicated effectively, just not over an extended period of time.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — May 18, 2007 @ 5:57 pm - May 18, 2007

  9. Communication at some point equals salesmanship. To be a good salesman you gotta believe (or sound like you believe) in what you are selling.

    Comment by John in IL — May 18, 2007 @ 11:17 pm - May 18, 2007

  10. The Bush Administration has Zero credibility on border enforcement.

    Who does? I think it has less to do with credibility of a particular president and more to do with beaureaucratic BS. Your statement would be similar to saying that your governor sucks because it takes forever and a day to get your driver’s license.

    Comment by ThatGayConservative — May 19, 2007 @ 1:09 am - May 19, 2007

  11. TGC: Good point about “who does”

    Indeed it wasn’t like Bush inherited a hermantically sealed border and let it go to pot. Though I find it unacceptable that the border has been left insecure for so long.

    The Bush administration really baffles me. They let the media dictate the national agenda, they let the border remain insecure and the nutty Justice Dept has a jihad against our own agents (not to mention the Court Martial jihad against our servicemen).

    It’s shame how the administration apparently doesnt’ care about this perception problem.

    Comment by Vince P — May 19, 2007 @ 1:14 am - May 19, 2007

  12. The Bush administration really baffles me.

    Not me so much. For all his affectations, Bush is still the product of an elite upbringing who doesn’t have the first clue what life is like for an average American. He is every much an elitist as John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, or Al Gore. Most of the people he’s surrounded himself with are the same.

    Bush supports amnesty for illegals because from where he sits, all peasants look the same. And there is nothing special about American citizenship.

    Comment by V the K — May 19, 2007 @ 8:41 am - May 19, 2007

  13. Dan, good post (again). Communication and leadership have been something I have been thinking about a long time regarding Presidents. Personally, I don’t think great communication skills are as important as the content behind them. I think Bush is one of the worst Presidents this country has ever had, and IMO the worst President since Nixon. One of the things that never bothered me about Bush was his communication skills. Yes, hearing one or two gaffes from Bush made me laugh, but then it gets tiresome to hear them repeatedly. Further, I have to continually yap in front of 10-20 people for ten hours each week, and I’m sure people can find some winning quotes from me. It’s the content behind the message. I do believe that Bush is sincere overall about, say the war in Iraq and WOT. But I have to say that my bs meter goes off the charts most of the time he talks. (For comparison, my bs meter went off the charts as well when Clinton spoke).

    Bush’s leadership on gay equality has been abysmal. For example, when NJ Supreme Court ruled for civil unions last year, Bush used his mantra of judicial activism. Fair enough, but that is something from Bush that everyone has heard many times over. What I was waiting to hearing and hoping for leadership from Bush was him to say that he would have been happy if the legislature initiated the process and looks forward for other states to do that. I don’t recall his support of civil unions in New Hampshire. Bush did say he supports civil unions, right?

    I firmly believe that Bush personally has no issue with homosexuals and homosexuality. I am fairly certain he has many friends and professional acquaintances who are gay. And with all his contacts, he is or should be extremely knowledgeable on this issue. But yet, when asked if he thought homosexuality was a sin, he dropped the leadership ball once again. Now Hillary Clinton did the same thing when she was asked. And I am ticked.

    Clinton had great communication skills. In fact, they were so good, he was able to parse his words to be intentionally deceptive without technically lying, and usually able to do it in clear, crisp speech. It seemed important to Clinton to make the distinction to being intentionally deceptive and lying, as if being technically truthful is okay and not more despicable than lying.

    Reagan initially had great charisma, communication skills, and leadership (for the most part) in his first term. So he was able to appeal to many people, even those who disagreed with him. Not sure what happened in his second term. He still had charisma somewhat. But his communication skills and leadership (aside from winning the cold war, perhaps) were awful.

    But the above are what I think of communication and leadership. Today, though, it appears that being able to communicate is more important than leadership. Or more likely, good communication skills gives the appearance of leadership, even if that’s not the case.

    Regarding Bush, people have said that part of the problems with the Iraq war is due to his lack of communication skills. And because of everybody automatically buying what the media says (clear example further down) that has caused a problem. But I would say it was due to more of his leadership skills. Bush obviously has his rational for the policies in the Iraq war, whether one agrees with them or not. But for whatever reason, he did not continually outlining what they are, even though it should have been clear to him that his message was not getting through. Everybody knows how Bush feels about judicial activism and that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the same cannot be said for his rationale for the Iraq war. Blame the media all you want, but Bush dropped the ball on leadership again.

    It seems to me that what is needed more than communication skills, is pandering skills. Knowing the right things to say and when to say it, and not care what is really important. Clinton did a great job in this area. And except for the Iraq war, so did Bush.

    This is what you are seeing with the leading candidates running for President now. Romney has gone from a liberal to conservative as soon as he starting thinking about running for President. Giuliani and McCain have followed suit somewhat, pandering more to the base they are trying to attract. The same is happening with the Democrats like Clinton and Obama. Clinton’s answer regarding sin of homosexuality was clear pandering and avoidance of leadership. It’s more important to know what to say and how to say it in a short sound bite, than to have actually say something of substance.

    An example of how we let the media control the campaigns. In the 2004 primaries Howard Dean had a lead in the polls up to the Iowa caucus. He lost, and let out this scream, and it was shown a gazillion times. The media also had us believe that this must mean that all of a sudden Dean sucks, even though when asked people will say they figured that on their own (which I believe is true in some cases, but mostly false). And then his polls dropped significantly, even in places where he polled higher before the media gaffe. Lesson here. Don’t let out a scream, because that will automatically mean that by itself, you are no longer qualified for President. What’s funny is that this did more damage to Dean than his pandering to Pat Robertson and his firing of gay staff at the DNC.

    Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts. In my mind, it’s very complex and a lot of side issues that come with it, and reading it over, I see some inherent contradictions. I just had a hard time organizing my thoughts more clearly, and my partner put on last Sunday’s Simpson’s on the VCR and I want to watch it, so I’ll have to let it go for now.

    Comment by Pat — May 19, 2007 @ 10:50 am - May 19, 2007

  14. Hey, GPW, how does your man John McAmnesty’s obscene tirade against John Cornyn fit into this whole scheme of effective presidential communication skills?

    Comment by V the K — May 19, 2007 @ 1:21 pm - May 19, 2007

  15. Now now VK… be nice

    Comment by Vince P — May 19, 2007 @ 1:25 pm - May 19, 2007

  16. That wasn’t meant to be snarky, although tone doesn’t transmit well in eSpace. I meant the question honestly. When McAmnesty told Cornyn “F*** you!” I’m willing to bet that a lot of the base thought it was directed at them as well. And it doesn’t help McAmnesty’s reputation for having anger management issues. I know that GPW is a McAmnesty supporter, so I’m genuinely interested.

    For the record, many presidents have used this kind of language. Nixon and Johnson were notorious for it. Clinton was caught on tape giving a hapless staffer a four-letter tirade. And then there’s Hillary “You F’ing Jew Bastard!” Clinton.

    Comment by V the K — May 19, 2007 @ 2:24 pm - May 19, 2007

  17. I was just joking.

    I really dont care about a temper… Thank God some of them find things to get mad about.

    I care more about his selloutedness.

    Comment by Vince P — May 19, 2007 @ 2:53 pm - May 19, 2007

  18. #15:

    I know that GPW is a McAmnesty supporter


    my man Rudy

    Comment by Ian S — May 19, 2007 @ 3:09 pm - May 19, 2007

  19. “Mental institution, Michael. That’s something you oughtta think about.”

    Comment by rightwingprof — May 19, 2007 @ 4:58 pm - May 19, 2007

  20. Dan:

    the skill with which Thomspon responded to Michael Moore’s challenge to debate

    Basically, Thompson let loose with a lot of bombastic blather to shift the focus from the fact that he was too much of a chickensh!t (as St. John McCain would say) to debate Moore. Kind of pathetic when you realize Moore is not that great a debater. Interestingly, Moore has apparently paid medical bills for one of his biggest critics, Jim Kenefick, of Moore’s new film has even been praised by FauxNews so it must be fair and balanced. LOL!

    Comment by Ian S — May 19, 2007 @ 10:08 pm - May 19, 2007

  21. Basically, Thompson let loose with a lot of bombastic blather to shift the focus from the fact that he was too much of a chickensh!t to debate Moore.

    In other words, Moore needs the publicity.

    Kind of pathetic when you realize Moore is not that great a debater.

    He claimed in his challenge that he is. Are you calling him a liar?

    Interestingly, Moore has apparently paid medical bills for one of his biggest critics, Jim Kenefick, of

    Out of the goodness of his cholesterol encrusted heart, I’m sure.

    Comment by ThatGayConservative — May 20, 2007 @ 1:39 am - May 20, 2007

  22. BTW, if healthcare is so spectacular in Cuba, why did Fidel need a Spanish doctor? Why do people come here from all over the world just to see a doctor instead of Cuba?

    Comment by ThatGayConservative — May 20, 2007 @ 1:49 am - May 20, 2007

  23. Mea culpa, I thought Dan was a McAmnesty supporter.

    Thompson smacked Moore big time. Get over it, Ian.

    I think the Moore/Cuba thing illustrates a truism about liberals. You can have the most brutal dictator in the world, a guy who deprives his people of all freedom to speak, to vote, to worship, to live lives of their own choosing. But if he offers free health care, guys like Moore and Ian will think he’s the coolest.

    Comment by V the K — May 20, 2007 @ 8:26 am - May 20, 2007

  24. I don’t believe for a second that Moore and his funky bunch just showed up, landed and demanded healthcare. There’s money in there somewhere. I don’t even think intense hatred for Bush would get you onto the island for free.

    Comment by ThatGayConservative — May 20, 2007 @ 5:09 pm - May 20, 2007

  25. When Castro had Moore in his grasp…why did he let him go????

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — May 20, 2007 @ 10:24 pm - May 20, 2007

  26. When Castro had Moore in his grasp…why did he let him go????

    My guess is that there’s not enough food.

    Comment by ThatGayConservative — May 21, 2007 @ 2:02 am - May 21, 2007

  27. I hear you, TGC. Rumor has it that Michael Moore once devoured an entire country.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — May 22, 2007 @ 4:05 pm - May 22, 2007

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