PRESIDENTIAL WORDS MATTER
In this blog, I share a very thoughtful piece on the power of words by a long-time friend. Dr. Polly Ann Brown (Ph.D, Penn) and her husband Ken are part of a small circle of five couples that have been meeting regularly for almost 30 years to pray for each other and our families and discuss anything we feel like discussing. Polly Ann has regularly helped deepen my thinking with her probing insight. Thanks Polly Ann.
Here I publish her very perceptive reflection on the power, for good or ill, of Presidential words. (As usual, please invite your friends to join my free blog: ronsiderblog.substack.com.)
WORDS AS DEEDS:
The Power of the Presidency
Polly Ann Brown
On October 9, 2009, we woke up to the news that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee cited the president’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany hailed the prize, noting that Obama has “set a new tone” and created a “readiness for dialogue.” Al Gore said the prize was “well deserved” while others agreed with the columnist who called it a “joke” and the woman on the street who laughed and then asked, “What for?” Tom Harris, a Republican strategist, argued that many people were stymied because: “The Nobel Committee seems to think that Obama’s pretty words are a perfect substitute for him actually doing something.”
As if we don’t do things with words.
The debate over the relationship between words and deeds has a history. One side views language as a spoken or written account of reality. A statement describes a state of affairs or a fact. The other side holds that words can also create reality. We use words not only to say things but to do things. Linguist J. L Austin refers to “performance utterances” and “speech-acts” to emphasize the pragmatic aspect of the creative (and destructive) view of language. We may use language to advise, warn, apologize, pronounce two persons married, bequeath a sum of money, or sentence a person to death. In their book Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson point out that “rhetorical acts” are a president’s major source of executive power. A president may pardon, veto, fabricate a narrative to justify military action, or negotiate an international peace agreement.
A creative view of language is consistent with a biblical vision. God spoke the world into existence: Let there be light. And there was light. Biblical faith is a faith of words and of the Word. The Old Testament is a running record of a dialogue between God and God’s people, a treasure trove of human responses to God’s address. In the New Testament, Jesus, the Word made flesh, ministers through speech, addressing and inquiring through face-to-face encounters and answering questions by telling stories. The Bible is filled with admonitions on the use of words (e.g., “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but such as is good for building up; Death and life are in the power of the tongue; Let your speech always be gracious; A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver; A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”)
One commentator complained that the president won the Nobel prize only for his values and attitudes. I, for one, track the values and attitudes that cut through and beneath a politician’s words. Do they engage or isolate, invite or impose, unite or divide? Do they reflect preference for a unilateral approach or multilateral diplomacy? Do they call upon my best or my worst self? A Cherokee story is told of a grandfather who teaches his grandson that within each of us are two wolves doing battle with each other. One wolf is full of vengeance, anger, hatred, self-pity, and fear. The other is filled with forgiveness, faithfulness, hope, truth, and love. When the grandson asks his grandfather which wolf wins, the grandfather says, “The one that gets fed.”
From the moment he entered the public arena in 2004 to deliver the DNC speech, Obama’s aspiration to be a bridge-builder was clear. He warned of the threat posed by spin-masters and pundits who divide us by “slicing and dicing” our country into red states and blue states, a Black America and a White America. He emphasized that we are the United States of America, urging us to work together as our sister’s and our brother’s keeper to “solve the challenges of our time.”
In 2008, during his first presidential campaign, Obama stopped along the rope separating him from the crowd to speak to a man who came to be known as “Joe-the-Plumber.” Obama’s love of tough, respectful debate was evident. He engaged the man whose views opposed his own, listened carefully, asked questions, waited for a response, then gave a thoughtful, nuanced response from his side.
A day after the inauguration, I watched the Interfaith Prayer Service as it streamed from the National Cathedral’s website. The service featured clergy from Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Protestant traditions. A children’s gospel choir sang “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” and a tall, stately man with a deep, resonant bass voice sang “Amazing Grace.” Dr. Cynthia Hale, pastor of Atlanta’s Ray of Hope Christian Church, read from the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah, her voice ringing out like a bell summoning those who would heed Isaiah’s words. The prophet announces that the kind of fast the LORD chooses is one that calls us to: loosen the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, cover the naked, turn and face our kin, and refrain from pointing a finger or speaking evil. And what shall those who observe this fast be called? Looking in the direction of the new president, Pastor Hale read, “You will be called Repairer of the Breach.”
On the evening of the day he was sworn in, during his first interview as president, Obama was asked about Justice Roberts’s “flub” while administering the oath of office earlier in the day. He downplayed the mistake. “No,” he said. “Justice Roberts was trying to help me and we both had a lot on our mind.” The next day, during the swearing in of staff members in the White House, someone joked about the Justice’s “mistake.” The president stood by and did not smile. It was later reported that Justice Roberts received an apology. When Obama himself joked about Nancy Reagan’s interest in seances, he later called her, owning up to and apologizing for words that should not have been spoken.
As president, Obama strengthened ties with our allies around the world and sought diplomacy with our adversaries. In Berlin, he hallowed the ground where, in his words, “Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle.” In Cairo, he acknowledged our country’s mistakes in the Muslim world: “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than cooperation. . . this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” Toward the end of his second term, in May 2015, he signed the Iran nuclear agreement. In December 2015, he announced that, along with nearly two hundred countries, the United States had committed to the Paris climate agreement.
Shortly after the beginning of his first term, President Obama visited Republicans on Capitol Hill. He spoke for ten minutes on his economic stimulus proposal and took questions for an hour. He willingly revised a few items of the plan while acknowledging there would be limits to compromise. Afterwards, one Republican who had suspected the meeting would be a “drive-by public relations stunt,” found it to be a “substantive, in-depth discussion,” and credited the president for “taking the time to truly listen to our side.”
In her sermon delivered at the Interfaith Prayer Service, The Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins of the Disciples of Christ Church advised the new president to “take a deep spiritual breath” before he entered the fray which she predicted might “tend to draw you away from the ground of your deepest values.” It was hard to imagine the new president, so hopeful and optimistic by nature, conceding in these moments that such a thing could happen. But it would not take long for President Obama’s enthusiasm and idealism to be tempered.
Only a few months into his presidency, Obama acknowledged that if he wanted to get something done, bipartisanship could not be a top priority. With the wind at his back, the Democrats having won a majority in both the House and the Senate, he pushed through his healthcare plan without one Republican vote, referring to the process as a “majority muscle move.” In the first midterm election, the Republicans won back the House and gained seven seats in the Senate. One journalist described the election results as a “hammering that wiped away the last vestiges of the euphoria that swept [Obama] into office.” The president himself called it a “shellacking,” acknowledging that the process of navigating through the partisan divide was an “ugly mess” and expressed regret that he had not worked to make it a “healthier” process.
The president continued to try to work with Republicans to “whittle away our differences,” but eventually acknowledged that his “biggest early disappointment” was that his dream of ushering in a post-partisan era was just that – only a dream, a “romantic fantasy.” He regretted that during his presidency “the rancor and suspicion between parties has gotten worse instead of better.” At his last Correspondent’s dinner speech in the spring of 2016, Obama joked about the ways he had changed over the eight years: “I was a young man, full of idealism and vigor, and look at me now. I am gray and grizzled, just counting down the days ‘till my death panel” (a reference to one of the criticisms of his healthcare plan).
On November 9, 2016, we woke up to the news that Donald Trump had won the presidential election. In the New Yorker, David Remnick characterized Trump’s win as “nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny and racism,” adding, “It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.” And yet, in what must have been one of the most challenging moments of his presidency, as if optimism and hope and an instinct to unite people are stamped into his DNA, Obama addressed the nation with these words: “Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but…we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country. That’s what the country needs – a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.”
Three years later, we know the country has not gotten what it needs. In a recent Political Science Quarterly article, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig examine President Trump’s “rhetorical signature” in their attempt to give aid and understanding to those who found the transition from Obama to Trump jarring. There are people who delight in Trump’s improvisational and unpredictable rhetorical style. It was a welcome change to what they felt was a scripted, poll-driven, too-well-thought-out way of speaking. They saw Trump’s ways with words a disruption of politics as usual. It didn’t seem to matter that he used his rhetorical force to insult, demean, dehumanize, demonize, incite violence, and to squander our moral authority around the world, heightening tensions in the Middle East. Jamieson and Taussig point out that one of the key features of Trump’s rhetorical signature is that his speech is “norm-breaking.” And though his rhetorical style and his control of the media agenda won him the election, it hinders his ability to govern in a political system still accustomed to those conventions. Jamieson and Taussig conclude that Trump “eschews scripted language, depicts himself as the heroic savior of a country in free-fall, dismisses the authority of key custodians of knowledge when it is convenient to do so, refuses to honor traditional standards of evidence and argument, breaches long-lived canons of civility [and] attacks the legitimacy of a number of democratic institutions…Just as a golden, block-lettered ‘Trump’ expressed his brand in business, this spontaneous, Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability-dodging, institution-disdaining rhetoric serves as his signature in politics.”
President Obama never meant that a call to unity – a central theme of his presidency – means uniformity. As a former president, he made a statement after the El Paso and Dayton shootings last August, specifying what a call to unity demands of us: “All of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language is . . . at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.”
We are speaking and hearing creatures. We live by words spoken and heard, words addressed and answered. In Finally Comes the Poet, Walter Brueggemann writes, “How we speak matters enormously…because the shape and power of everything else is put at risk and made possible by our speech with each other.”
Given our current situation, we have an option. Obama didn’t walk on water, but we have in him something far better in presidential rhetoric than what we’ve heard over the past three years. It seems worth talking about the difference words make and voting for something better in November.