Here is some advice to the White House about tonight’s presidential television address.
I take an interest in presidential speech giving. I wrote speeches in the White House for nearly two-thirds of the Reagan presidency, the first half of that time for the Vice President, second half for the President.
Presidential rhetoric is an instrument of presidential power and an aspect of presidential duty. Particularly when putting the prestige of the nation on the line, any president –every president — must convey clarity about the mission, confidence in his decision, faith in the nation’s purpose and its leadership in the world, prudence in pursuing national interest, perspective about the historical framework of the action, and determination about seeing things through.
These are not just matters of political posturing and the personal interests of the man in the office himself. These are matters of leadership that only the man in the Oval Office can provide. They are matters of his duty to the American people who elected him and the office he occupies. They are part of what every president swears to when he raises his hand on Inauguration Day and pledges to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
By these measures, the last few weeks have been among the worst for presidential rhetoric on record. In the last seven days alone, how many times have we heard cries from both Left and Right that there is no clarity about the goal of our mission in Libya? How much confidence has been conveyed in contradictory statements about the participation of the U.S., whether we are involved or not involved or sort of involved?
It began before Libya.
How much leadership was there when one member of the administration said Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator and should not step down, only for others in the administration to do an about face a few days later? Yes, I know that Joseph Biden is the vice president, not the president, but he was speaking for the White House. Presidential rhetoric sometimes extends beyond the words of the top man himself.
And yes, I know that the situation in Egypt was changing rapidly and difficult to discern, as it has been everywhere in the Middle East during this period. But Milton’s reflection on his blindness can sometimes apply to presidential rhetoric, particularly when events and intelligence reports leave you close to blind: “They also serve who stand and wait.” A sense of nuance, of framing statement to say enough but not too much, of restraint is also part of the task and art of the job.
In talking about leadership, I am not criticizing the supposed lead role of the British and the French in Libya, or the overall generalship of a Canadian in the operation. If those countries are ready to pitch in, that is all for the good. We are carrying a lot of packs in the Middle East and globally. If other western democracies can assume more cost and lift a greater share of the weight, by all means let them.
But it is essential to keep in mind that resources are not the only reason for American global leadership. More than any other nation, we are inclined by temperament, history, national governance, and tradition to step back and look at the good of the whole. The term honest broker is used too much in national and global affairs, but it is nevertheless true that the U.S. is the world’s only reliably honest broker. A president who coveys confidence in the place of the U.S. in the world helps preserve that role – a role essential to long run world peace.
The current president has not, to put it mildly, conveyed great assurance about U.S. global leadership. And in the past few weeks, as that leadership has been needed, his statements have done nothing to recover from that lapse or reclaim that sense of assurance.
Nor has he in his presidency displayed much historical awareness. For example, going back more than a year, his remark in Normandy on the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, left at least this listener with a sense that he and his staff barely understood what had happened six and a half decades before or how much a duty the legacy of those events placed on all Americans who followed.
So tonight’s talk is an opportunity to start setting the current president’s rhetorical house in order. In the past several months in particular, but from early in the term as well, that house has been a mess and getting messier.
It is time for a little spring cleaning.