The Rhetorical Rise and Fall of Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement, 1952-1967

Alan Griggs, Western Kentucky University


The practice of entertaining and informing people with political speech has disappeared, replaced by sound bite posturing and ineffective delivery of questionable content. Technology has forced a wedge between politicians and the public by eliminating the excitement and challenge of compelling, issueoriented rhetoric in favor of language reduced to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the last of the evangelical political speakers, Tennessee governor Frank Clement bonded with his audiences by using a blend of religious fervor, crowd analysis, disciplined technique, and one-on-one empathy. From I952 until I956, Clement established himself as the nation's foremost political speaker, an ambitious and talented officeholder whose political path led to greater heights. Both the best and worst time of Clement's political life occurred at the I956 Democratic National Convention. Failing to adapt to television and delivering a speech replete with insensitive content and oratory, Clement's career floundered. Tennesseans elected him to a third ternm as governor in 1963 only to see his final years in office beset by personal problems, two failed United States Senate bids and an anachronistic speaking style. Clement's sudden death in 1969 ended a life of tremendous promise and unfulfilled destiny. He had guided Tennessee through unprecedented social change, created an expanded economic base, and provided free textbooks to public school students primarily through the strength of his speaking, yet, he failed to attain self-set goals and died while trying to resurrect his public career. Today, a void remains in the realm of substantive and entertaining political speaking. With the importance of an informed public now greater than ever, political rhetoric fails to set the standard it once did. Today, the speaking effetiveness of Bryan. Long, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clement is studied by historians but not, unfortunately, by their modern-day peers.