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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.

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.