We Will Need Words When It Matters

I recently read Jean Edward Smith's devastating biography of President George W. Bush. It is a reminder of how important it is for leaders to be able to connect with people on things that matter, and by this I don't mean calling those who disagree with you clowns and losers on Twitter. 

Bush's inability to connect was painfully visible on March 21, 2006, when his long-time nemesis Helen Thomas of Hearst asked him during a press conference why he had invaded Iraq. Bush was unable to answer the one question central to his presidency. Smith writes:

 President Bush at a March 21, 2006 press conference.

President Bush at a March 21, 2006 press conference.

"Bush was caught flatfooted. Living in the president's White House cocoon and surrounded by a largely unquestioning staff, Bush was flummoxed by Thomas's directness. He rambled a lengthy nonresponsive reply, citing the events of 9/11 as his motivation."

Bush's goal for the press conference and a series of speeches was to rebuild faltering support among Americans for the war and to improve his historically low approval rating. The opposite happened. Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the speeches "exercises in spin." He added, "They don't outline the risks. They don't create a climate where people trust what's being said."

Donald Trump will face similar challenges during his presidency. There will be a day when he must stand before the public and ask for its support for new economic or social policies, a plan to respond to a significant crisis or, as commander in chief, the use of American military power.  

Many presidents have failed these leadership and communications tests. In my lifetime, I recall Jimmy Carter's feeble words on the Iranian hostage situation or the nation's energy crisis. Others have succeeded, in large part, because they connected powerfully with people in a human, compelling and persuasive way. They used simple but evocative words to explain, inspire and unite. Lincoln sought to heal the nation in his second inaugural, FDR prepared Americans for war after Pearl Harbor, Reagan emotionally memorialized the lost crew of the space shuttle Challenger, and Obama deepened the nation's understanding of racism and the continuing damage it does to our country.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump largely communicated through tweets and campaign rallies filled with rambling generalities. During the transition, his Tweets have continued but there haven't been speeches, opinion columns or press conferences to fill out the public's understanding of how he will govern.

Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is heralding a presidential communications revolution in which Trump will use social media to "talk back and forth" with the American people in a way "that's never been seen before." Perhaps. Certainly Trump and staff can respond to a handful of Twitter or Facebook comments from Americans -- as many politicians and businesses already do.

This is simply contemporary communications and in most cases, not real "back and forth" conversations but rather more stylized versions of words used in "old school" platforms such as press releases or annual reports. (By the way, for an example of effective communications with Americans by a president, read Reagan's book of letters.) 

The new White House team is mistaking medium for message. After all, media platforms have and will change: Lincoln's speeches were in person and on paper; FDR's on radio; Reagan's on television; and Obama's on all of these platforms plus social media. The message matters more than the medium. 

So when Trump becomes president and Tweets that he will not allow North Korea to obtain a nuclear missile -- ''It Won't Happen!" -- as he did last week, he will have to back it up with a specific plan of action, possibly in a nationally televised/webcast address. The Tweet is just the movie trailer; the full film still needs to be delivered directly and personally to Americans. Certainly Trump's team knows this; his first chance will be his inaugural address when he must pivot from campaigning to leading. 

A bucket list goal of mine is to read a biography of every U.S. president. I am up to 18 and have read multiple volumes on my favorites -- Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan. In every case, historians have judged these men, in part, by their ability to define their character, to communicate a vision and to rally Americans around a plan to achieve that vision.

 Harry Truman announces the bombing of Hiroshima.

Harry Truman announces the bombing of Hiroshima.

On the campaign trail Harry Truman, like Trump, played offense, speaking off the cuff and focusing on a villain (the "do-nothing Eightieth Congress"). But Truman's communications style changed after he won the election. His White House addresses on momentous events and policies such as the destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb, the Korean war and the Truman Doctrine were carefully crafted, "solid and workmanlike speeches, fact-filled and frank...," wrote political columnist William Safire in his collection of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears. 

When Truman died, veteran journalist Eric Sevareid said of him: "I am not sure he was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea. But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be. It's character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now."

Trump's character test will come. Here's hoping his answer has more than 140.