Tag Archives: presidential rhetoric

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

A Campaign of Mockery and Abuse

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of our public discourse.

We can easily trace the American penchant for latching on to conspiracies and fantasies back to the puritans, who sought to purify the society by casting out “witches.” The temptation to demonize groups and thereby convert our own problems and frustrations to an external source is woven deep into the American tapestry. McCarthyism set lose an even more destructive wave of fear feeding off of the vague threats posed by the rise of communist parties in the old Soviet Union, China and other sections of Southeast Asia.

Since then, Americans seem especially susceptible to finding secret and nefarious activities in African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Hispanic Americans, “liberal” college professors, secret societies, “the liberal media,” “Mexicans” Muslims, federal employees and the “deep state.”   These and other softened forms work as a kind of code. The mere mention in the presence of the right group—in both senses of that word–is enough to confirm the alleged threat, no evidence needed.  Defining a nation’s problems in terms of “outsiders” is not unique to the United States. We are just the leading example.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of public rhetoric, partly through the conveyance of gleeful personal attacks using these terms.  He is his own touring circus of verbal abuse, for example, musing lightheartedly about a “liberal media” reporter recently shot in the leg, or a woman whose appearance is not up to his standard, or the bogus medical issues of opponents, or the “low ratings’ of opponents, who are supposed see that taunt as some kind of meaningful measure. And on it goes.

Most presidents have gently chided their political opponents, but they knew their mandate to cultivate inclusion was more important. And political liberals aren’t beyond finding their own demons. But none have allowed the world to be so completely shaped by an illusory museum of misfits that only exist mostly in the MAGA-fevered brain. The fact that so many supporters can tolerate this downward street fight naming is disappointing and ironic coming from a man who found ways long ago to stay far above the streets used by ordinary folks.