The Lost Art of Storytelling in American Politics

Lincoln with his son Tad

Storytelling is one of the oldest and most powerful traditions in human communication, but it often seems to be forgotten by our 21st Century politicians.

I am not talking about making up some imaginary figure whose life is supposedly ruined by some legislation passed by the opposite party.

I am talking about stories that are either true, or so obviously fables that no one mistakes them for “real life,” which are used to illuminate, or persuade, or to give something back to the earnest person you’ve just had to turn down. These kinds of stories can do more to sway people to your point of view than all the rhetoric and fiery denunciations of so many of the current crop of politicos put together.

Lincoln douglas debates 1858

Abraham Lincoln was probably the American politician who used storytelling to the greatest advantage.

Keith W. Jennison wrote in The Humorous Mr. Lincoln: After he became a lawyer he found that his wit and his acute sense of the ridiculous were effective courtroom tools. As a politician he handled the weapon of satire as a stiletto or a broadax as the occasion demanded. During the first few months of his Presidency he used humor many times as a roundabout way of saying ‘no.’

Poet Walt Whitman wrote: “As is well known, story-telling was often with President Lincoln a weapon which he employ’d with great skill. Very often he could not give a point-blank reply or comment – and these indirections, (sometimes funny, but not always so,) were probably the best responses possible. In the gloomiest period of the war, he had a call from a large delegation of bank presidents. In the talk after business was settled, one of the big Dons asked Mr. Lincoln if his confidence in the permanency of the Union was not beginning to be shaken – whereupon the homely President told a little story: “When I was a young man in Illinois,” said he, “I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian church. One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, and I heard the deacon’s voice exclaiming, ‘Arise, Abraham! the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations, with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”

Longtime friend Joshua Speed recalled being present when a delegation of Midwestern leaders called upon President Lincoln: “The committee was composed of able and distinguished men. Senator Lane opened for Indiana, Garrett Davis followed for Kentucky, and other gentlemen for Ohio and Illinois. They all had complaints to make of the conduct of the war in the West. Like the expression in the prayer-book, the Government was doing every thing it ought not to do, and leaving undone every thing it ought to do. The President sat on a revolving chair, looking at every one till they were all done. I never saw him exhibit more tact or talent than he did on this occasion. He said, ‘Now, gentlemen, I am going to make you a curious kind of speech. I announce to you that I am not going to do one single thing that any one of you have asked me to do. But it is due to myself and to you that I should give my reasons.’ He then, from his seat, answered each man, taking them in the order in which they spoke, never forgetting a point that any one had made. When he was done, he rose from his chair and said, ‘Judge List, this reminds me of an anecdote which I heard a son of yours tell in Burlington, Iowa. He was trying to enforce upon his hearers the truth of the old adage that ‘three removes are worse than a fire.’ As an illustration, he gave an account of a family who started from Western Pennsylvania, pretty well off in this world’s goods when they started. But they moved and moved, having less and less every time they moved, till after a while they could carry everything in one wagon. He said that the chickens of the family got so used to being moved, that whenever they saw the wagon sheets brought they laid themselves on their backs and crossed their legs, ready to be tied. Now, gentlemen, if I were to be guided by every committee that comes in at that door, I might just as well cross my hands and let you tie me. Nevertheless, I am glad to see you.’”Even though none of the delegation got what they came to demand, the President gave them a great gift. He really listened to them, and then he told them in a memorable story why he wouldn’t be following their “advice.”

I bet every one of those gentlemen went home and told that story over and over again.

Perhaps our political leaders feel the pressure that so many of us in today’s America are feeling: to do more and do it faster, do more and do it faster, as if we were all on some out-of-control assembly line. Too many politicians are limiting themselves to sound bites and ever louder voices to make their points.

But shouting at people is a very poor way to persuade them to do anything. It sounds too much like giving orders. And sound bites barely scratch the surface of an issue. In a time when the problems we’re facing are so large and complex, these catch phrases lead to less in-depth thinking about them just when we most need to really look at each and every option, and carefully consider which solution will be the most effective with the least likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences.

Now if a politician were smart as well as ambitious, they would distinguish themselves from that milling mooing herd of pugnacious plutocrats by learning the fine art of storytelling. It is one tool of many that every leader should have at their command, but
it’s been left out of the toolbox for too long.



  • Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad
  • During the Lincoln-Douglas Debates – 1858

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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