Bully in the Pulpit: Obama vs. Reagan
Presidents reveal the content of their character in the way they use their “bully pulpit.”
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Bully Pulpit, explained what it meant to President Theodore Roosevelt:
“Roosevelt is the first person that defined the term bully pulpit. … So he really thought of it as a pulpit in the sense that it was a moral platform. But bully in his time didn’t mean what we think of as bully now. It meant awesome, or splendid or great.”
President Obama has sunk his bully pulpit to Titanic depths. Be forewarned. There’s nothing “awesome, or splendid or great” amidst the wreckage. See:
- “The Bully Pulpit Between Two Ferns” here
- Obama’s interview with the “green lipstick” dipstick who swims in her cereal here and
- “Obama and the Pimp with a Limp” here
What’s worse is Obama’s serious and continued use of his pulpit to demoralize and defame the American people by freeze-framing our past national sins as our present. It’s as if the election of a black president by a majority of white people never happened.
On the morning after the massacre of worshippers in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, President Obama addressed the nation from the White House briefing room. He rightly conveyed “the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel.” He properly commended the murdered pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney and his eight congregants who died with him for their Christian faith and works. Obama appropriately reflected on the church’s beginning before the Civil War and its activism during the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Obama defiled his remarks when he used his pulpit to bully Americans by depicting the acts of a 21-year-old racist coward as if he represents Americans and our culture today.
Obama doubled down the day after, despite widespread criticism, by vilifying America’s young people in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco:
“The apparent motivations of the shooter remind us that racism remains a blight that we have to combat together. We have made great progress, but we have to be vigilant because it still lingers. And when it’s poisoning the minds of young people, it betrays our ideals and tears our democracy apart.”
Obama broad-brushed America’s young people with the evil act of one seriously disturbed young man whose racism is his own -- not a “blight” for which Americans share responsibility.
Using the “N-Word” to stoke his racial fire, Obama dumped the presidential pulpit on a WTF podcast to tell the world that Americans are not cured of racism:
"We are not cured of it," Obama told Marc Maron on the podcast, which was recorded last week in Los Angeles but released Monday. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n****r in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."
“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on," Obama said.
As an aside, after deciding on the title for this column, I did a web search to see if it had already been used, and found “No Bully in the Pulpit,” by Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. On April 20, 2013, Dowd denounced Obama for not learning “how to govern,” and failing to use his “brass knuckles” to get gun control legislation passed after the Newtown school shooting.
Dowd and I are about as far apart as Obama and Reagan. And speaking of the Gipper:
“Mr. Congeniality takes to the 'bully pulpit'” is how Godfrey Sperling Jr, described President Reagan as he welcomed reporters to the White House for the first time. Writing for the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 10, 1981, Sperling recalled:
“[A] newsman asked him if he would seek to keep alive "the wonderful spirit in America" that surfaced with the hostages' return.
Yes, he said he was going to try very hard to do this. Someone asked, "How?" And Reagan referred to Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit." He was frequently going to use this "bully pulpit" to reach out and touch the best impulses of the American people and thus try to create a new American spirit that would really be similar to that which he knew in the days of his youth.”
William K. Muir, author of The Bully Pulpit: The Presidential Leadership of Ronald Reagan, wrote:
“Ronald Wilson Reagan, the forty-first president of the United States, was a leader in such a scale -- a national moral leader. He regarded the presidency as a bully pulpit, a place to which Americans looked for hope and from which he was determined to shape the ways they thought about themselves, their society, and their government. And he loved fulfilling that purpose.”
Reagan had splendid “bully pulpit” moments, including Pointe Du Hoc, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Challenger Space Shuttle. None conveys Reagan’s character more so than the few words recorded in the March 30, 1981 entry in The Reagan Diaries. They are the essence of Reagan’s Christian faith while struggling to breathe after being shot by a deranged young man. It reads:
“I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart where I was stripped of my clothes. It was then we learned I’d been shot & had a bullet in my lung.
Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”
Reagan concluded his diary entry on that fateful day:
“Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”
Whether family members of the Charleston shooting victims share the political beliefs of Obama or Reagan is of no moment. They undoubtedly share the Christian faith and forgiveness Reagan personified in his personal crisis.
America needs another leader like President Reagan who appeals to our best impulses -- who believes that this nation is properly defined by the surpassing magnitude of its best deeds rather than its few worst -- a leader who loves America and who bullies only our enemies.
That would be awesome, splendid and great.
Jan LaRue is senior legal analyst with the American Civil Rights Union.