By Howard R. Wolf
As one reviews the history of the American presidency, it seems clear that our presidents earn an honored place in our nation’s life if they leave a legacy of some memorable sentences and phrases, often contained in a major speech, that serve to articulate and preserve the nation’s best traditions and to reenergize them for the future.
We think of George Washington’s role at Valley Forge and his Farewell Address (1796) in which he affirmed “the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”
We think of Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery and the eloquent conclusion of his Gettysburg Address (1863): “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Never were three prepositions — “of,” “by,” and “for” — given more meaning.
We think of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address in which his words enabled the country to survive its most severe socioeconomic crisis: “I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.”
And we can find many other good examples of stirring and enduring presidential language in "American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton" and "An American Primer."
As the present incumbent of the Oval Office would want us to speak eloquently of him in a dignified manner, befitting the oath that he has taken to speak for “We the people” – not just “some” of them – so we can expect him to use language that uplifts all of us.
When we elect a president, we vote – at our best – for someone whose character and values transcend politics and ideology, for someone who makes important decisions after deep reflection and expresses these decisions in words that we would want our children to remember and repeat.
President Trump would do well to set aside tweets for a while and to immerse himself in the essays and books of some of our country’s best writers and thinkers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Richard Wright, Thornton Wilder, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, David Henry Hwang and Philip Roth, among others.
The Library of Congress can help him make a list. (I’m available, too.) He may find after a while that his programs and policies will become less divisive as he becomes a “greater” communicator than he is, I believe, at the present time.
A president’s words, though weightless themselves, can have the specific gravity of marble, and when they are words that mobilize the country – “a date that will live in infamy” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1941) – they may end up etched in stone on walls within which their messages will reverberate through our history.
The word may not be mightier than the sword, but it is often its equal … and sometimes stronger: “These are the times that try men’s souls” (Thomas Paine).
Howard R. Wolf is emeritus professor and senior fellow in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo and author of "A Version of Home: Letters from the World and The Education of a Teacher." He is a life member of Wolfson College (Cambridge University).