Tag Archives: John Kennedy

The End of the Rhetorical Presidency?

No one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for words of inspiration.

I’ll leave it to others to sort out the politics of our disheveled presidential campaign.  But we already have more than enough evidence to examine the ruins of something called “the Rhetorical Presidency.” The idea loosely encompasses the norms and traditions that have usually governed the occupants of the White House, at least since the Presidency of FDR. The Rhetorical Presidency includes the public statements and direct addresses made by the figure we used to call the “leader of the western world.” There may have always been a bit of hubris in that name.  But it suggests that the communications coming from the White House were often meant to represent the ideals of governance in a democracy.

We acquired some wonderful traditions from occupants who came in the last century, including Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. All are part of a tradition of using the office to urge the nation to focus on issues beyond their own personal interests. Think of inaugurals, state of the union address, oval office addresses, responses in times of tragedy, and formulations of progressive actions that could be effectively interpreted to the nation.

Generally, the Rhetorical Presidency represents a desire to weave the nation together as a national community sharing common goals, and it has fulfilled that ideal by leaving a legacy of public rhetoric that is more inclusive than divisive, more focused on shared ideals rather than divided loyalties, and usually resolute in not using the “bully pulpit” to demonize or denigrate other Americans.

Trump has used his office to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy.

You can see where I’m going with this. If the condition of the physical structure of the White House could represent the current state of the Rhetorical Presidency, we would have to imagine a building ready to be condemned. Its columns facing Lafayette Park would be buttressed by metal scaffolding. Some of the tall windows would be broken and covered with bare plywood. Raw plaster would cover expanses well beyond the porticos. And badly fitted blue tarps covering leaks in the West Wing’s roof would also contribute to the look of an institution that has seen better days. This is the Trump legacy. More than any other modern leader of this republic he has used his rhetorical power mostly to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy. The United States Printing Office issues a nicely-bound annual Public Papers of the Presidents for libraries. But no one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for inspiration. If the best presidential rhetoric suggested fair-minded and moral leadership, the recent inability of the current holder to even condemn white supremacy groups speaks to how diminished this vital feature of the Presidency has become.

Not long ago a President was the first mental construct children had of their government. It was safe to allow them to listen to his (and someday her) words. To be sure presidents could have bouts of temper. Harry Truman wrote angry letters, and then never mailed them. John Kennedy mostly confined his public anger to a hapless steel industry trying to raise prices in the midst of high inflation. And Richard Nixon said a lot in private but taped that “decent” family papers in the 1970s couldn’t print. But to a person, they tended to use their public utterances to speak to the shared aspirations of the nation.  Even in the already hopeless early years of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson could still rise to the occasion and scold his Southern mentors hesitating on legislating for true racial parity. On the evening of March 15, 1965, Johnson told a special meeting of Congress the time had long passed to approve a Voting Rights Act with teeth. It was a long speech that was a national lesson in tolerance, ending with a phrase associated with Martin Luther King:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

This was a very imperfect man still able to find the right words  to push an imperfect nation to do the right thing. That is what the Rhetorical Presidency could be about.

I miss those days.

Excerpt: LBJ’s Voting Rights Speech “The American Promise”

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson calls on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Whole speech available here: http://youtu.be/5NvPhiuGZ6I

Well Said.

                                   Cory Booker

Sometimes a person comes up with the right words at just the right time: the result of good timing, a sense of irony, and an apparent simplicity that may yield a deeper truth.

Responses to others can be kind or cutting, playful or hurtful.  They are at their worst when one of the parties can hide behind anonymity.  One effect is that our political climate has become coarser and more toxic. It doesn’t help that our President seems to have no sense of humor.

Here are just a few favorites of the whittier kind heard from politicians, past and present, residing on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Presidential candidate Cory Booker is frequently asked about race as a factor in the current political climate.  One recent response: “I’ve had lots of crazy things said to me, like, ‘Is America ready for another black president?’ And I’m confident it’s never been asked of a white candidate, ‘Is America ready for another white president?’”

  • [Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill had a notoriously rocky relationship in and out of the British House of Commons.  Both were sharp witted and ready for a quick retort.] Churchill once asked her for some advice on how to proceed in the House of Commons.  She responded with a simple “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” In another exchange that supposedly took place at a party, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

  • [In a recent exchange in Parliament the loquacious MP Anna Soubry dressed down government minister Michael Gove over his support of Brexit.  She ended her statement with a pointed question, to which Gove responded,] “The right Honorable lady is a distinguished criminal barrister. Now I know what it is like to be cross-examined by her.  But I also understand why Lawyers are paid by the hour.”

  • [President Obama loved to work with writers to come up with quips for the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner.  He seemed to enjoy sparring with journalists, perhaps because he was a successful writer before assuming the Presidency.  He also relished quips playing off of absurd Republican assertions about his personal history.]  A favorite: ”These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”

  • And there’s also this: ”The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

  • John Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960 by a close margin.  Charges during the campaign that his wealthy father was rigging the result led to this observation by Kennedy, delivered in his usual understated style: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.'”