December 12, 2016

The Bully Pulpit…and the Bully

by Hal Gershowitz

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Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWell, now we’re about to have a first—an actual bully at the Bully Pulpit. No disrespect intended. Really, we’re not making a judgment, just an observation. The Bully Pulpit is the 100-year-old name given to the power of the White House to influence and persuade. It was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Bully Pulpit was the place (the White House) where good presidents proposed and fought for good things. Bully had a different conotation back in TR’s day. “Bully for you,” one might say to someone who had performed a good deed.

Various Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have endeavored to use the prestige of the White House or the Oval Office to inform (or sell) the American public on their progams or visions for America. Barack Obama recently tried to do that by conducting a town hall tweet session on the White House Twitter account, which attracts more than two million followers.

So the bully pulpit had been used for most of the 20th century to win public support. Teddy Roosevelt regularly courted the press, and delivered major speeches, which were invariably covered by most of the press. He would focus on key legislation such as railroad regulation and food inspection. The Bully Pulpit was used to promote the public good, at least as Teddy Roosevelt defined the public good.

President Franklin Roosevelt, during the horrible thirties, used the Bully Pulpit very effectively. He tackled the Great Depression or went to the Bully Pulpit to sell a certain policy or assuage the fear of Americans about particular threats facing the nation.

President Harry Truman used the Bully Pulpit to sell his anti-communist policies, and he effectively used the Bully Pulpit to persuade Congress to provide assistance to Greece and Turkey, and to sell the Truman Doctrine, which committed America to support anti-communist forces wherever we confronted the threat of Communism or Russian expansionism. Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg convinced President Truman to “scare the hell out of the American people,” which Truman effectively did when on March 12, 1947, he effectively used the Bully Pulpit in marshaling support for his sweeping policies designed to contain the Soviet Union.

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy stepped up to the Bully Pulpit with more than 50 million Americans watching as he explained the quarantine the United States was imposing around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from bringing weaponry onto the island. Even the very conservative New York Herald Tribune proclaimed, “the people of the United States must and will unite behind the president in the course which Soviet aggression has made inevitable.” President Kennedy certainly understood the power of the Bully Pulpit.

And who can forget the way President Lyndon Johnson used the Bully Pulpit to appeal to Congress and the nation to pass voting- rights legislation following the physical attack on black Americans in Alabama back in March 1965. He used the Bully Pulpit to tell the world, “we shall overcome,” using the words of the civil rights anthem. The Civil Rights Act soon followed.

Perhaps President Ronald Reagan was the last president to effectively use the Bully Pulpit when he went to the public to sell his 1981 tax cut. Armed with charts and statistics, he explained why tax cuts could lower deficits and boost the economy. Unfortunately, he failed to understand that lowering taxes and increasing spending do not go hand in hand very well. Nonetheless, when President Reagan wanted to build support for his increased military budget, he returned to the Bully Pulpit, and in a number of well-publicized speeches he effectively warned of the danger of communism. And when he thought it was time to make peace with the Soviet Union, he returned, once again, to the Bully Pulpit to persuade the county that a new day had arrived.

Today, the Bully Pulpit, as we knew it, has changed. Social media has largely replaced traditional print and broadcast-based mass media. Reflective thought has given way to thought informed by tweets and Facebook posts. The age of thoughtful eloquence has given way to the age of Trump. Some have christened the new age as a new post-factual era.

The current structure of the media quite possibly has emasculated the Bully Pulpit as we knew it. When the current President-elect steps up to the symbolic Bully Pulpit to persuade, he does not think in well thought out expositive language, but rather in staccato thrusts confined to 140 characters.

On Mexico — “not our friend” “they’re killing us” “unbelievable corruption” “we get the killers, drugs & crime, they get the money!” “Totally corrupt gov’t” “totally corrupt.” Well, we suppose that’s one way of discussing our issues with our southern neighbor, which, incidentally, also happens to be the second largest export market for US manufactured goods.

The Bully Pulpit has changed hands many times since Teddy Roosevelt resided at 1000 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, it is President-elect Trump’s to use. The whole world is listening.




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