The Bully Pulpit and the shaping of US public policy

The Bully Pulpit has been a US term for presidential speeches which seek to influence, define or shape public policy.

The phrase was coined by Teddy Roosevelt to describe an excellent platform for his reform agenda. At the time the word ‘bully’, one often used by Roosevelt, conveyed the sense of superb or wonderful rather than something which might describe a Trump tweet.

Two US scholars – Jeffrey S. Ashley and Marla J. Jarmer – have edited an essay collection, The Bully Pulpit Presidential Speeches and the Shaping of Public Policy, which analyse a series of Presidential speeches from Roosevelt to Obama. Each essay looks at the speech’s context, the speech text, the frame, the problem definition and the impact. The speeches are often more substantial, more literary and more elegant than most modern political speeches and many of them were written by the President himself rather than by a team of speechwriters. The book is also a good source of ideas on writing speeches as well as giving a potted history of the US in the past century or so.

The first in the collection is Roosevelt’s 1908 speech on conservation delivered to a conference of Governors on the Conservation of Natural Resources. It was sufficiently far-sighted and insightful to be able to be applauded by ardent environmentalists today and condemned by conservatives for its approach to property rights and how environmental concerns can legitimately override them. Next is the Taft acceptance speech in the 1912 election campaign – his only one in the campaign as generally sitting Presidents didn’t campaign for re-election – which had the overwhelming aim of shifting the Republican Party positioning away from the progressivism of the Roosevelt years. Taft suffered a massive loss in the election but was successful in re-orienting Republican Party philosophy for almost another century until it moved position again – but further right.

Woodrow Wilson made the war a platform for arguing for women’s suffrage. Warren Harding’s – probably the most corrupt President in history – campaign speech was a clever effort of framing conservatism as a “return to normalcy” in contrast to the upheavals of war. It also helped pull off an unlikely nomination win and the promotion of the slogan by Chicago advertising man, Albert Lasker, was a forerunner of modern campaign techniques.

People don’t talk much about Calvin Coolidge speeches and his nickname Silent Cal was well-earned although he did become a source of anecdotes about his taciturn nature. Once asked what a sermon he had heard was about he replied ‘sin’. Encouraged to amplify what the preacher had said about it he replied: “He was against it.” On another occasion a guest at a dinner he attended said to him that she had made a wager that she could get him to utter more than two words. He looked at her and replied: “you lose.” His successor, Herbert Hoover’s, speech on agricultural marketing was a precursor to modern speeches rooted in references to mandate and calls for bipartisanship.

Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” was an early example of a speech composed by a number of people and the famous phrase has been credited to a number of people, including FDR himself and Thoreau. Perhaps it is most significant for its use of metaphor. Ironically, much of its content was similar to the messages Hoover was trying to convey at the start of the Great Depression but in his case it was more about a belief that things would soon be better. His successor, Harry Truman, is in the collection for his Taft-Hartley veto speech when he made the case against what we would now call neo-liberal industrial relations laws.

Eisenhower is represented by his farewell speech warning about the “military industrial complex”. It is consistent with his 1956 Convention speech which argued that high military spending leads only to war and that the US should invest in peace, dialogue and cultural and intellectual exchange with communists. It has been argued by Bret Baier in his book, Three Days in January, that the speech also was directed towards JFK who Ike believed was dangerously adventurist. Incidentally, in view of the current campaigns about Obamacare, it is perhaps significant that Ike believed the US should have a single payer health scheme based on the same principles as military health care was. Sadly he was dissuaded.

The chosen JFK speech is his civil rights one which is a great example of the sort of secularised jeremiad which is an important strand in American rhetoric. The included Clinton speech has a similar rationale. LBJ’s peace without conquest Vietnam speech is a profound example of the delusions which underlie much US foreign policy while Tricky Dickie’s speech on US Indian American policy epitomises how youthful experiences can influence later policy. While Nixon is an unlikely defender of Indian American rights, let alone promoter of significant reforms which addressed injustice, one explanation for the speech is the influence of his college football coach, Wallace ‘Chief’ Newman, who was a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians.

George W. Bush’s speech is, inevitably, the 9/11 address with the “they hate us” for US freedoms of speech, religion, voting and democracy comments which can be counterpointed by Chalmers Johnson, discussion of the CIA term ‘blowback’ to describe the unintended consequences of US policies such as the Mossadegh overthrow and Martin Luther King’s 1967 line that the US was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” The selected Obama speech also deals with hate but this time hate crime legislation. Sadly the book was published in 2016 so some of Obama’s other speeches – like the Amazing Grace performance – couldn’t be considered for inclusion. But thankfully the timing also precluded any Trump tweets although these might have provided some instructive comparisons between Trump and all the Presidents who preceded him.