The Speech and the Presidency

by Richard Brookhiser

Walter Dean Burnham described the president as the pontifex maximus of the American civil religion — the king replacement, the presider in chief.

What is curious about the role is that only a president may perform it, but not all — not even many — actually do so.

Franklin Roosevelt, with his Hudson squire manner and his radio voice, was by all accounts superb. Harry Truman, scrappy little jerk: no. Ike — better at D-Day; as president he seemed more like a nice uncle. JFK — his courtiers dearly wished to cast him in the role, and his inaugural showed promise, but he died too young. Johnson — “lugubrious bohunk” (a line of John Updike, who was trying to praise him): no. Nixon — anxious, embattled: no. Ford: no. Carter — tiny whiner: no.

Reagan — superb: forceful yet relaxed, dignified yet humble, at ease with words and with himself. Bush 1 — English as a second language: no. Clinton — God no. Bush 2 — English as a third language, yet in the aftermath of 9/11, beginning with his Ground Zero appearance, yes.

Obama’s acolytes were certain that fulfilling the pontifical role would be among the least and easiest of his accomplishments. He was so eloquent! Yet his speechmaking began to deteriorate with his inaugural, until he developed an array of tics — aloofness, petulance, long-windedness.

In the Tucson speech he stepped into the role. His political enemies will sigh, but must acknowledge that he has grasped an opportunity uniquely open to the president.

And there is something else: If the president chooses to slip some politics into his pontificating, he can do that too. Consider one of the first and grandest incarnations of the role, Washington’s Farewell Address. It is the grace summation of a lifetime, and it enounces principles of ongoing interest. It was also a direct hit at the Republican (now Democratic) party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who, by 1796, were essentially chorus girls for the French Revolution. They knew that had been hit, and they just had to grin and bear it.

So: pause, breathe, then — once more into the breach, once more.

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