What Does the President Say?

By Seth Studer

I originally intended to write a post on the 50th anniversary of 1964, one of the most interesting years in American politics. But it morphed into a reflection on presidential speech. Reflections on ’64 will come later. For now, heads up: PBS is airing a documentary, 1964, tomorrow night (Tuesday January 14) at 9 pm EST. Check it out. 

“These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

johnsonFifty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s public personality was an enthusiastic gusher. He exuded more outlandish, unbridled optimism than any American president since Theodore Roosevelt’s personal mania cut a rather fine Stick Swinger in Chief. It’s ironic that TR’s best known quote is “speak softly and….,” when he was succeeded by a veritable Sunday buffet of soft speakers, culminating with Calvin Coolidge, who on average spoke in one day the number of words TR could squeeze into a hypomanic minute and at significantly lower decibels. All presidents have artificially constructed personas, but TR and LBJ were as close as we got, I suspect, to a perfect coincidence of political maneuvering, public persona, and a genuine, often unfiltered personality. These guys were nuts. These guys were talkers. These guys drove their handlers insane.

One needn’t naively romanticize the past to argue that, in their capacities as (symbolic) leaders of the cultural and public spheres, presidents today speak poorly and with great reservation when compared to presidents of even a few decades ago. I remember seeing a chart in the early 2000s, probably in Time or Newsweek or Us Weekly, that listed the “reading level” (a concept for which I have nothing but contempt) of historical presidential debates. “When Lincoln and Douglas debated,” they exclaimed, “they spoke at a 12th grade reading level! [Never mind that the Lincoln-Douglass debates were not presidential] When Bush and Gore debated, they spoke at a third grade reading level!!

This was apparently a cause for alarm.

Of course, when Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell spoke to each other and to the president, I’m sure the “reading level” was raised a notch. And I’m sure the armchair sociologists who study speeches like tea leaves, who believe that presidential oratory actually makes things happen (before Kennedy gave that speech, nobody had thought of sending Americans to the moon!), who cringed whenever George W. Bush mispronounced a word that whole regions of the nation mispronounce, and who wish that President Obama’s State of the Union addresses possessed the cadence and sweep of his 2008 stump speeches, who want vision and eloquence and old-fashioned oratory from their Chief Executives…I guarantee you these armchair sociologists would die of boredom if they heard the genuinely powerful oratory of those late 19th-century Roast Beef presidents. Men like James Garfield and William McKinley were renowned for the force and eloquence of their speeches. No 20th-century president has anything on the oratorical prowess of Benjamin Harrison. But imagine these genuinely gifted speakers addressing the nation on the CNN. By hour three, our armchair sociologist would have long since switched over to Modern Family.

Eloquence I can take or leave. Obama takes (at least when he’s campaigning). Bush leaves (except for his fiery second inaugural address). Ronald Reagan regularly delivered speeches at something like a third grade reading level, but almost nobody complained about that because Reagan possessed personality, he played a character, and that’s what we enjoy most in modern presidents. George W. Bush’s character – “I’m a guy who owns a ranch” – was never wholly convincing, even though he actually was a guy who owned a ranch! He didn’t play the character well: the costume didn’t fit, you could see the strings. The pressures of the post-Patriot Act presidency seemed to constipate his speech (in Texas, he could actually deliver a damn fine speech), a condition that worsened throughout his presidency. (One of the exceptions, again, was that remarkable second inaugural address.)

We don’t want our presidents to speak well. We want them to sound good. But we’ve now had two presidents whose personalities seem suffocated by the office (was it September 11? the Clinton impeachment? there is a new caution), and the NPR class tends to blame either the stupidity of the Chief Executive, some new level of dishonesty in politics, or a general decline of intelligent, substantive American discourse (our handwriting is getting worse, too!).

I sympathize with our amateur sociologists, who are eternally pessimistic about the culture, who believe that the president is “in charge,” who believe that presidential speeches matter, and who believe that presidential speech is in a bad way. Because presidential speeches do mater…but not for the reason our man in the armchair believes. Presidential speeches don’t build spaceships or create laws. They don’t end recessions or lead armies to victory. But presidential speeches help reveal the current scope, shape, and limits of American public discourse, American rhetoric, and American language. They let us know whether or not the goalposts have moved. They don’t create the discourse or set its limits – Americans do that – but presidential speeches do something almost as good: they reveal what the President of the United States can say on TV.

That is valuable information.

Obviously political speeches have political functions. Their content is limited by the president’s political agenda as much as by cultural norms. When Obama, whose presidency has been an exercise in becoming as verbally constipated as his predecessor, refers to “non-believers” in his inauguration (he can’t say “atheist”: that is valuable information) or acknowledges his support for gay marriage, we know the motive is political. But it also reveals what the president can say on TV.

Consider Lyndon Johnson. “These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” The fact that no president in the past two decades would make such a casual reference to the birth of Jesus in relationship to a massive government program is, if nothing else, interesting information. More interesting, however, is Johnson’s famous declaration (spoken with gravitas as the optimism of 1964 had waned), “We shall overcome.” Johnson was already beginning to realize the severity of the coming storm, and he might have considered different words, tempering his celebration of Civil Rights legislation. But instead he quoted the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. This was shocking. Granted, it made political sense: Johnson needed to consolidate liberal support (he rightly feared a challenge from the left, led by Bobby Kennedy, as much as he feared the defection of the South). He was also sending an ideological message to Democrats: we’re burning the ships. There’s no going back. This is our agenda.

But he accomplished at least one other thing, and it’s the reason we remember that speech: Johnson established that yes, the President of the United States can quote a liberal folk song. Yes, the President can say that on TV.

One thought on “What Does the President Say?”

  1. My first thought when I read the title was Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook!” statement. But in all seriousness, this was a great read. Living outside the US, the State of the Union address is one thing I make an effort to tune in to. As you so succinctly stated, “presidential speeches help reveal the current scope, shape, and limits of American public discourse, American rhetoric, and American language. They let us know whether or not the goalposts have moved.” That’s what the State of the Union address does for me now. It cuts to the heart of the issues America feels are most important, and what the country (or at least the President and his/her government) intend to do about them.

    I share your contempt for the reading level analyses. In Japan they love to harp on people’s inability to correctly read kanji. Former Prime Minister Aso was grilled for this (he also professed that his favorite thing to read is manga, but that’s beside the point). This recent obsession with correct kanji reading has boosted the popularity of “Kanji Kentei”, or “Kanji Aptitude Tests”. Studying for those tests is a great way to brush up on vocab, but the upper levels are ridiculous, and most of the kanji tested on those levels only appear in obscure literature or historical documents. It’s akin to testing people on all the obscure vocabulary words your English teachers dug up and put on vocab tests back in high school. A fairly developed lexicon is important, but how one uses it to communicate with people and strike a chord are the things that matter. One president who did this well I feel is Abraham Lincoln, and though it wasn’t a State of the Union address, the Gettysburg Address is a great example.


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