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This Is Something Else the Leading GOP Candidates Don’t Understand

President Lyndon Johnson - “We Shall Overcome” Speech on Voting Rights March 15, 1965

The American presidency has always involved more than just the exercise of its formal powers under Article I of the Constitution. Theodore Roosevelt famously described the office as a “bully pulpit”— a platform from which to communicate with, educate, challenge and inspire the citizenry in the direction of the common good. Those who have grasped this aspect of the job, from Washington and Lincoln to the present, stand out for what they were able to achieve. T.R. himself used in an innovative and creative way to promote Progressive reforms in the early years of the last century. His fifth cousin Franklin gave regular “fireside chats” via the new medium of radio to restore confidence and faith in the American Dream shaken by the Depression. His “nothing to fear” (1933) and “date of infamy” (1941) speeches rallied the nation in times of desperate crisis, and stand as models of the power of words from the White House.

John F. Kennedy tapped into the energy of the young with his “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You” inaugural flourish in 1961. Lyndon Johnson invoked the

Mantra of the Civil Rights movement – “We Shall Overcome” – to create momentum

for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And Ronald Reagan’s theatrical “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall!” (1988) hastened the end of the Cold War.

When presidents ignore, misused or otherwise squander opportunities to lead with words the national interest has always suffered. Herbert Hoover is the gold standard for ineptitude in this area, conveying a distance, coldness and cluelessness toward the people standing in breadlines that made his very name an epithet (“Hoover-villes”). The tapes of the Richard Nixon’s self-indicting, justice-obstructing phone calls ultimately cost him the

job and the esteem he sought with such ardor over his long career. Jimmy Carter was a more successful president than these two, but his cardigan-sweatered scolding from the Oval Office had the opposite of the intended effect, dooming his pursuit of a second term.

Now we live in an environment in which the rules of language are still being defined.

One thing is certain, however: amid the burgeoning outlets of “social media,” with their instantaneous and global reach, the precision, tone and nuance of what comes out of the White House (not to mention its emotional impact, has never been more important. When we look for someone “presidential” most of us are referring to an individual who shows consistency, maturity, discretion and discipline in their choice of symbols and metaphors and priorities for the country. He or she ought not throw their weight behind the demands of the loudest and shrillest voices, must not go off half-cocked with divisive words, and must resist the siren song of simple solutions to complex problems.

Politicians of all stripes struggle to meet this requirement, and nobody is perfect. But the contenders on the GOP debate stage in Las Vegas this past Tuesday night inspire a particular sense of dread about their fitness to ascend Teddy’s pulpit. To get noticed in a crowded field, they have trafficked in the kind of fear-exploiting and fact-denying rhetoric that is poison in any definition of democratic dialogue.

Mike Huckabee characterizes ratification of the Iran arms deal as leading Jews to “ovens.” Dr. Ben Carson believes the Pyramids were built to store grain, and makes headlines with habitual analogies to Hitler, Nazis and the era of slavery. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio one-up each other with tight-jawed saber-rattling, announcing their readiness “on day one” to use more bombs and insert more American “boots on the ground” in the cauldron that is the Middle East, with no regard to the failures of that strategy in the recent past.

And then there is the front-runner, Mr. Trump, a pit-bull-in-a-china-shop whose every utterance gets ratings (and, therefore, obsessive media coverage and hype) with crude remarks about women and various “others” in our multi-ethnic world, in the worst traditions of nativist “Know-Nothingism.” His promise to deport 11 million “illegals” (on the model of a 1950s program egregiously called “Operation Wetback”) and his

plan to keep them out with a wall is a sure-fire way to draw whoops and hollers with “base” voters in Iowa and South Carolina. Never mind that these schemes would be ruinously expensive, unworkable, and counter to long-held American values.

Similarly, Trump’s casual demonization of Muslims and his suggestion that we shut the door on their entry to the United States has managed to attract criticism from all quarters

of the ideological spectrum, including his GOP rivals and hard-line world leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu. The damage already done by Trump’s reckless words is significant. He has alienated a billion people, given recruitment fodder for extremists and embarrassed our country, once seen in the light of the torch atop the Statue of Liberty. And his attempt to justify his vision with analogies to the treatment of Japanese- Americans during World War II reveals an appalling ignorance about history, invoking as it does the stench of round-ups and internment camps.

The faithful are, as of this date at least, undeterred in their support for their man, thrilled to channel their free-floating anger into his demolition act. One hopes that eventually the thrill of the Trump phenomenon will fade, and as voters enter an election year they will think more carefully and responsibly about the language and demeanor of those who aspire to be our next president. Vaclav Havel, the poet who went from a jail cell to the presidency of the Czech Republic, once observed that the role of the politician is to bring out the best in his constituency. Donald Trump and his adversaries seem bent instead on exploiting and appealing to the to the worst. Unless this somehow dramatically changes, they show themselves to be dangerously unqualified to be our next “Moral Leader-in-Chief,” the leader who speaks for us all.