Tag Archives: rhetorical presidency

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

The End of the Rhetorical Presidency?


Trump ran as an insurgent.  But he can’t govern as one.  Our badly split nation will need a leader who can find principles of common ground even with political opponents.

There’s an old joke about a politician who is asked his favorite color.  And, of course, it’s plaid: something for everyone.  The conventional wisdom about political animals is that they will say anything to be liked, to fit in, to be connected somehow to their constituents.

We often denigrate this feature of political life: the urge to ingratiate oneself to others.  But what if we elected a leader who got most of his rhetorical energy from rhetorical separation?  How could he possibly lead a great and diverse nation?  The short answers are that we have, and that he probably can’t.

The election of Donald Trump is a milestone in so many ways.  We’re familiar with the “firsts” and near firsts:” a chief executive who will assume power with no experience in public office; the first winning candidate in the modern presidency to abandon close consultation with the agencies during the transition—including Defense and State; the only modern American presidential candidate who campaigned on the pledge to “lock up” his opponent; and the first leader to float toward inauguration day still attacking members of the press and movie stars.  All of this is made worse by the fact that Trump seems to be addicted to a medium–Twitter–more appropriate to  adolescents than the  leader of the western world.

During the campaign Trump was a rhetorical flame thrower.  Many thought that side of this impulsive man would diminish.  But it has not and probably won’t.  More than most, he is energized by his enemies.  The very thought of them translates into angry withering criticism, and complaints that his critics are “dishonest” and “finished.”

What this all portends for the nation is not good.  Trump ran as an insurgent.  But he can’t govern as one.  Our badly split nation will need a leader who can find the transcendent principles of common ground even with his political opponents.  As Georgia State’s Mary Stuckey reminds us, presidents are not only commanders-in-chief, but also interpreters-in-chief.  Their obligations in the rhetorical presidency include affirming the basic decency of Americans, invoking shared national values, and consoling the nation in times of national trauma.

Think of President Obama’s rhetoric of forbearance on health care reform and immigration reform.  Think of his good humor in the face of birth certificate “truthers” like Trump, or the crude obstructionism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others.  President Obama’s rhetorical nature was of a serious but positive agent for change.  He shared that optimistic style with most of his predecessors, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.  We usually need to look to the Senate to find historical figures who thrived on indictment and division, figures like Joe McCarthy and Huey Long.

He seeks mostly his own counsel, turning himself into the equivalent of a sailor who uses astrology rather than astronomy for navigation.

It does not help that the President-elect seems  to be incurious by nature.  As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has pointed out, his utterances on events like the Navy drone capture by the Chinese have been embarrassingly behind actual events.  He seeks mostly his own counsel, turning himself into the equivalent of a sailor who uses astrology rather than astronomy for navigation.

We can hope he changes.  This nation is going to badly need a leader who can function as a broker and unifier.


A version of this essay first ran in the Star Ledger, January 1, 1017.