Tag Archives: presidential rhetoric

A Pity-Party for the Man From the Penthouse



His utterances come with a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and GOP allies, to loyal members of his cabinet.

Our President seems unnaturally sustained by a rhetoric of grievance.  Any event that calls for a public comment includes lines that alert us to his belief that he has been the victim of grave injustices. It hardly matters where he is: speaking to the boy scouts, holding a press conference with foreign leaders, in the comfortable womb of a Fox News, or acting out a kind of sundowners syndrome in reverse, with incoherent morning tweets mixing self-pity and verbal abuse. And so one morning we learn that it’s “sad” that even Republicans “do very little to protect their President.” (Tweet of July 23).  That self-referential quote is typical and also concerning in its switch to the Nixonian third person.  With these kinds of utterances comes a vast victimology that ranges from the press, to former friends and opponents, to loyal members of his own cabinet.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their comments.

This is all uncharacteristic coming from the person who holds what was until recently the position of “leader of the free world.” And its 180 degrees from where a President’s traditional public rhetoric should be.

Presidents typically emphasize transcendent values in their words. John Kennedy’s quotable Inaugural Address called on Americans  to fulfill the nation’s basic goodness. Trump’s will be remembered for his offensive description of America as a dystopian land of “carnage,” a tasteless dig at his predecessor seated a few feet away.

I can remember when the nation was shocked to hear a president level criticism of an American industry. Presidents didn’t do such things. The occasion was the 1962 decision of United States Steel and others to raise the price on its basic product.  President Kennedy feared it would feed inflation. In a press conference he bristled with frustration at the news.  He thought he had an understanding with company leaders, but was blindsided by the announced price rise anyway. His annoyance was the headline of the day.

Even so, we don’t remember JFK as an angry man. The steel issue consumed no more than a few moments in a press conference. Instead, we remember the countless times he used the presidential pulpit to celebrate American institutions, innovators and ordinary citizens. He had the grace and apparent modesty to let his actions speak for themselves.  And we had the sense that he was bigger than his small frame; a charismatic if cautious tactician able to absorb setbacks without demanding that others notice.

For many younger Americans like myself Kennedy was also the model of cool, the presidential equivalent of a musician like Miles Davis or the young actor Ben Gazzara. Their personas were slightly enigmatic and their words were measured, understated to let their talent do most of the talking. They are a long way from the needy billionaire installed in the White House who is defined by his daily whining.

Presidential Theater On a Small Screen


It’s still a surprise to encounter a president who mostly shuns the potent rhetorical power of the office in favor of throwing little grenades of text out to small screens.

Since the early 1950s presidents have always made effective use of television.  As my colleague David Blake points out in his new book, Liking Ike (Oxford, 2016), even the rhetorically awkward Dwight Eisenhower warmed to the demands of ‘putting on a good show’ for Americans anxious to be reassured.  With its obvious interest in pictures, television is anything but a natural home for political discussion. But the presidency obviously has the advantage of singularity.  This is what the “bully pulpit means in the 21st Century.  Video in various forms sustains our need to understand that one person is mostly in charge.  We use this reductionist idea to make the presidency a vessel into which we place a lot of hope for our well-being and security.

So it’s all the more surprising to encounter a president who still shuns the  magisterial power of the Presidency in favor of throwing out little grenades of text to small screens late at night.  To be sure, our Donald Trump remains true to his reality television roots.  He has mastered a kind of bumper sticker rhetoric, even though these missives betray him as a shallow and surprisingly mean-spirited leader.  In more normal times presidents usually try to offer to the nation the best versions of themselves.

The screen of a smartphone is too small for this task, especially since presidents have an IMax of possibilities they can use to press their views to the American public: availabilities for journalists, junkets, and visits to Americans to offer support and reassurance.  By tradition the best and most transcendent causes  are at his disposal.  The job requires the celebration of all things quintessentially American.

We usually come to terms with the President largely as a dominating presence in video set pieces: press conferences, the State of the Union Address and carefully choreographed interviews, especially when they are carried by one of the big three cable news channels. It’s a puzzle no one has clued him in on how to master these venues.  He survived the State of the Union Speech.  Many thought it was one of his best moments.  Surely he must  have some additional American values to celebrate, features of the national character that he could endorse. They would at least make a play at reframing himself as a leader with a heart. Events like a walk-through at a veteran’s hospital or simply throwing out a baseball as the National’s start of their season could humanize him.  Moments like these could only leave his doubters silent.  Even Richard Nixon could be charming when reminiscing about his four brothers, or the hard-scrabble life of his Quaker family in small-town Whittier California.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?

To understand how much an outlier Trump is one need only look at his strange “campaign” appearance in Harrisburg Pennsylvania on April 27. The Leader of the Free World looked small and defiant in that speech, which was mostly an attack on all sorts of Americans: the press, the Senate Majority Leader, migrants and minorities.  He found time to criticize the architecture and new location of  the “fake news” The New York Times. There were also predictable scuffles outside.  And a few hecklers gave him a chance to use his beloved mafia line, throw them “outta here!” As the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson noted, “It was a speech with all the logic, elevation and public purpose of a stink bomb.”  Another Republican presidential adviser David Gergen, told CNN it was the most divisive presidential speech he had ever heard.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?  Why is his eye always on the rear view mirror rather than the tortuous road ahead?  And why is he still issuing jeremiads against his foes rather than sharing national aspirations?   Time will tell.  But at least for now, and from a rhetorical perspective, Trump has managed to make the Presidency small and diminished, and too many of us nervous.