In my opinion, Truman’s Inaugural Address (1949) was worse than LBJ’s (1965), but I can’t fault anyone who sees it the other way. I actually think that LBJ’s Inaugural Address is one of his better prepared speeches, but it is certainly much better if you read it on your own than listen to LBJ deliver it. Comparing it to the Inaugural Addresses of JFK (1961) and Nixon (1969 and 1973) really makes it look bad, though. JFK’s, of course, is one of the most famous and beloved speeches in American History. And I actually think that Nixon’s first Inaugural Address (1969) is very underrated. It has a really nice rhythm to it and when Nixon was on his game, he could be a surprisingly good orator.
Lyndon Johnson was two very different orators. When reading from a prepared text, like an Inaugural or a State of the Union Address or many of his most famous speeches, LBJ was stiff, colorless, boring, and had an excruciatingly slow delivery. But when LBJ was campaigning and spoke extemporaneously or hopped up on a chair to say a few words to a rowdy crowd, few people could match his passion and his folksy manner. Had he been like that when delivering other speeches, I dare say that he would be remembered more fondly. But LBJ thought that there was a difference between the way a President speaks while he campaigns and the way a President speaks while he governs. He felt that there was a Presidential voice that was imperative for him to channel when it came to the speeches that he would give on television or from the Oval Office. Unfortunately, that voice was so bland and uninspiring and lacked so much emotion that it came across as almost uncaring when, in reality, LBJ was, for better or worse, a volcano of emotions — a big, sensitive, incredibly emotional man. Yet, he actively tried to hide that from the American people, and, really, it cost him politically.
It really is an odd decision that LBJ made when it came to dialing down the charisma that he did possess in order to come across as more “Presidential”. It’s odd because of how skilled LBJ was as a politician and how good his political instincts had always been. When he spoke with the passion he had on the campaign trail or with friendly crowds, he was on par with the better orators of his time. The closest he came to speaking with that passion in one of his prepared speeches was probably the “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress in 1965, but even then, he was holding something back.
But, yeah, it hurt him and when he went home to Texas to retire and die, he wondered why the people never loved him the way that they loved JFK and RFK. And for some reason he never quite understood that part of the reason was because he was so guarded and bland in those public statements that the people didn’t get a chance to know him like they did the Kennedys. It was a damn shame.