Bully Pulpit, or a Pulpit for Bullies?

Bully Pulpit, or a Pulpit for Bullies?

Today is the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks simply referred to as September 11th.

I remember thinking how critical the words of President George Walker Bush would be that day, and how grateful I was for the strong, measured tone that settled our anxieties and affirmed our future.

No, he didn’t make the fear go away. But, in truly presidential fashion, he made it manageable. He gave expression to our grief and affirmed our strength to persevere.

When President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” he was being prophetic. While some prior presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson, saw the potential influence of the president in terms of mobilizing public sentiment, few were as clear about how much of the president’s real power would come to lie in the potential of a president’s words to focus public attention and mobilize public action.

“A day that will live in infamy” forever resonates with my parents’ generation, for whom FDR gave voice to their outrage and inspired them to make extraordinary sacrifices, at home and abroad.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” remains a core sentiment of many members of my generation, who heard these words and found in them a calling.

Not every president is given circumstances that demand or invite rhetoric of a compelling and enduring nature. And not every president has the oratorical skills and speechwriting support to bring off such a moment if it comes.

But I always hope the president, whoever he or she is, will find the words if and when we truly need them. There are times we need to be consoled as a nation, times we need to be rallied, times we need to be called to greatness. In such times, other voices may be heard and may move us, but only the president can command our attention. If we need the words, it helps that president has them.

Our political leaders, including our presidents, are human beings. They get angry. They hold grudges. They have prejudices (as do we all). I don’t expect them to be something more than human.

I just hope that, at least in public, they will exemplify what is best about us, not what is worst.

The stunning rise of Donald Trump, leading candidate (in terms of poll results) for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, has raised eyebrows among many observers of American politics here and abroad. It also has raised alarm in many Republican circles, especially (but not exclusively) among the so-called Establishment circle.

The reason for the raised eyebrows and alarms should be obvious: he acts like a bully.

Let me be clear: like most Americans, I don’t know Donald Trump. I only know selected elements of his self-presentation.

For years, a key element of Donald Trump’s public persona has been the insult. Groups and individuals alike have felt the fire of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and “tweets.” I need not review the litany here.

What is stunning and disturbing is how, with each wave of insults of yet another individual or group, Trump’s support in the polls has surged. Here’s what it looks like on RealClearPolitics.com:

The blue line that is Trump’s support begins its rise out of the pack of single-digit candidates in late June with his comments about immigrants from Mexico (and, in fairness, his official declaration of candidacy). It soars later in July with his comments about John McCain’s military record . . . among other things. And while it ebbs a little in August, perhaps as people process his comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Trump’s support soars again . . . in part, perhaps, because he renews his line of insults against Ms. Kelly as well as Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham.

One should understand that what Donald Trump is doing as a candidate is hardly different from what many performers do in night clubs from New York City to Los Angeles, to rave reviews. Much of contemporary comedy is about the art of the insult (as it was even in Shakespeare’s time).

But the presidency of this country isn’t a night club stage, nor a reality TV show.

Donald Trump has a right to run for any office for which he is eligible. He has the right to run his campaign as he sees fit, subject only to what are increasingly empty and irrelevant regulations.

And we have the right to choose him, or someone else, as we deem best.

I won’t even claim that the sorts of aggressive tactics for which Mr. Trump is famous, on TV and on Twitter, can’t be effective. Many a more gentile-seeming political leader can, in private, embarrass a sailor and dress down a Marine drill sergeant to considerable effect.

But the presidency is also the platform from which one person will speak both to and for the heart of this nation . . . and the hearts of all its people, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, of every color and every nationality and every perspective. The power of this most public of pulpits must not be used to destroy the dignity of the people who depend upon its occupant for leadership.

That’s something I hope “The Don” understands as well as he understands media.


2 Responses to Bully Pulpit, or a Pulpit for Bullies?

  • Sandra Sweeney

    Mrs. Leinweber would’ve loved your input about Shakespeare! Nice essay.sj

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks, San. I think Mrs. Leinweber would have agreed with my assessment (though I doubt that my essay would have received an A!). Nice to hear from you!