What Presidents Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft & Wilson Sounded Like

Rare Audio Recordings of the Presidents

Would you vote for any of these men based upon their photographs (or voices)?


Let’s not generalize and say modern Americans are shallow, but research confirms that public image and to a lesser extent how someone talks, does influence the electorate.

One classic, yet apocryphal example, is the first televised presidential debate in 1960, in which supposed surveys showed people listening on the radio thought Richard Nixon was the clear winner of the debate, whereas people watching on television thought John F. Kennedy was the victor.

Today we are bombarded by media 24/7. It has becomes a challenge to capture anyone’s attention. The current presidential debates have devolved into images and soundbytes that convey little when it comes to substantive ideas and solutions for making our country functional. The public and media analyze Donald Trump’s hair;  if Hillary Clinton has “had work done” or why Ted Cruz “talks weird.”

So now, imagine life 100 – 125  years ago. Most Americans never ventured more than a few miles from where they were born. There was no internet, television or radio. Images were viewed in newspapers and magazines. If you heard a politician speak, it was, in person addressing an attentive crowd.

The technological revolutions around the turn of the century were stunning to the masses. The development of motion pictures, x-rays, electric appliances (beginning with the toaster), airplanes and audio recordings astonished people.

Maybe you’ve seen grainy silent films of the men who served as presidents of the United States at the turn-of-the-century. They are silent, stoic and graven in image. What did they sound like? How did they talk?

Most people do not realize that these early president’s voices were recorded and preserved for posterity, usually by the Edison Company on wax cylinder disks. The following recordings are part of the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University. It is very interesting to hear what these men sounded like.

Based upon their photographs and voices, could any of these men be elected today?

Grover Cleveland photo locFirst we have President Grover Cleveland (the 22nd and 24th president 1885-1889 & 1893-1897) the only man ever to be elected twice in non-consecutive terms.

Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before becoming president. In 1884 a book was published called Off-hand Portraits of Prominent New Yorkers by Stephen Fiske.  The coda to the profile on Cleveland accurately predicted “If he shall make the same sort of a Governor as he has a Mayor, the road to the White House is open to him, and this sketch may yet be entitled the portrait of President Cleveland.”

Grover Cleveland’s voice, recorded during a campaign speech in 1892 is a bit hard to hear with all the static, but is comprehensible.

The way most politicians in the 19th century wrote, is the way Cleveland speaks. Cleveland puts out his speech with melodrama and clear diction.

William Mckinley photo locNext, the 25th President William McKinley (1897-1901) who never left his front porch at his home in Ohio to campaign. McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, which put Theodore Roosevelt into the executive office.

McKinley on this recording from 1896, talks about the Republican platform. Similar to Grover Cleveland, McKinley speaks the way you’d imagine a 19th century politician would talk. McKinley’s speech pattern  epitomizes the 20th century movie portrayal of 19th century diction, emphasizing certain words, and like Cleveland, drawing out his syllables.

Theodore Roosevelt photo locTheodore Roosevelt the 26th President (1901-1909) was one of the most intelligent people to ever occupy the oval office.  Roosevelt could speak and read half a dozen languages. He had a capacious memory and was the originator of “the square deal”.  A great protector of our natural landscape, Roosevelt made environmental preservation a major component of his presidency.

Roosevelt was the youngest president, coming into office with an optimistic outlook at the dawn of the new century at age 42, after McKinley’s assassination.

His somewhat high voice, emphatic in conviction, is clear and deliberate. In this excerpt,  Roosevelt speaks about an issue which still affects politics today: how special interest groups make deals that benefit no one but themselves. Specifically he is talking about the importance of protecting the American farmer and quashing the big interests who would exploit farmers.

William Howard Taft photo locIf you never saw a photograph of William Howard Taft (1909-1913) and just listened to his voice you would say William Howard Taft sounds presidential. His speech pattern and voice sound very similar to how people speak today. Taft speaks beautifully and sounds natural in his delivery. His mellifluous voice comes across as “presidential” and authoritative. After his term in office, the erudite Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Taft battled weight problems throughout his life. The heaviest man ever to be president would probably not be electable today because of the shallow media and public belief that a man who can’t control his weight cannot control the country. In this recording Taft speaks about the abolishment of war. Being intelligent does not necessarily make a good president. Taft is usually ranked by presidential historians as one of our least effective presidents.

Woodrow Wilson photo locWoodrow Wilson the 28th president (1913-1921) was president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey before being elected president. You would expect him to sound like a professor and he certainly does.

Wilson sounds here as if he is giving  a class talk about American principles.

A man of strong ideas, Wilson is somewhat soft-spoken and has a pleasing voice.

Probably any of these men would be more suitable than any of today’s candidates for president.

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