Presidential resonance: One of my pet peeves

Today, I received this release from the Obama campaign:

Obama Statement on the
Anniversary of the Virginia Tech Tragedy

Today Senator Obama issued the following statement on the anniversary of the
tragedy at Virginia Tech. 

"One year after
the tragedy at Virginia Tech, families are still mourning, and our nation is
still healing. As Americans gather today in vigils and ‘lie-ins’ – or pray
silently alone – our thoughts are with those whose lives were forever changed by
the shootings. But one year later, it’s also time to reflect on how violence –
whether on campuses like Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University or on
the streets of Chicago and cities across this nation – can be prevented.
Clearly, our state and federal governments have to strengthen some laws and do a
better job enforcing others. But we all have a responsibility to do what we can
in our own lives and communities to end this kind of senseless violence. That is
still our task one year later, and it will be our ongoing task in the years to


This statement brings to mind two objections. The first is, what is this national fascination with anniversaries? Just because something was news a year ago does not make it news now. It’s not happening now. It was happening then. Aside from the entirely artificial connection of occurring on the same date on this artificial thing we call a calendar, today and that day have nothing to do with each other.

But that’s just a minor peeve. Here’s the major one: Why do we expect presidents to make statements about things that have nothing to do with the job of being president — even to the extent that people applying for the job think that they have to make such statements?

This peeve is a very old peeve for me. Or maybe not all that old. I think it reached its peak during the Clinton years. Bill Clinton was really, really into resonating to the news, the more emotional the news the better.

Mind you, I’m not blaming Mr. Clinton himself for this. He just happened to be very good at it, and to come along at the moment in history when 24/7 TV "news" was coming into its own. Remember that the 1991 Gulf War was the first CNN war (as I recall, Saddam Hussein was a big fan of the network). That’s when Wolf Blitzer became a household name. The next year, Mr. Clinton was elected, and the man matched the moment.

By the end of the decade, the assumption that the president would resonate with news that had nothing to do with him had become so assumed that by the start of the next decade, serious political observers upbraided Mr. Clinton’s successor for failing to play along. That brings me to an interesting historical artifact — a column I wrote in April 2001, at the very start of the current Bush administration.

It may for that reason seem anachronistic — particularly where I speculate that Mr. Bush is "too isolationist for my taste." This was, of course, before 9/11, and before the Iraq invasion — although I would submit that perhaps one reason Mr. Bush botched the Iraq intervention in so many ways is that he remains at heart an isolationist rather than an interventionist. (In other words, if he actually believed in nation-building, perhaps he’d be better at it.) But that’s not my point here today.

My point is that this piece reminds me of one thing I did like about Mr. Bush (sometimes it can be hard to remember such things): The fact that he doesn’t do the presidential resonance thing. Of course, this may be due to something in his character that is exactly what so many others hate about him — and remember (in spite of current political commentary militating against your remembering it), Bush-haters hated him way before Iraq.

Anyway, here’s the column:


The State

April 25, 2001, Wednesday

The president should do his own job, not everybody else’s

BYLINE: By Brad Warthen


LENGTH: 1133 words

Exactly two years ago as I write this, I found myself a
captive audience for CNN’s breaking coverage of the shootings at Columbine High
School. I was on the stair-climber in the workout room, and somebody else had
the remote. So I got a larger dose of television news than I would normally
subject myself to.

    At the time, I did a column on the nature of the coverage,
which was appallingly inaccurate and careless in the rush to tell everyone
right now what had happened, even though no one really knew at the time.

    I left out of that column one of the things that bothered me
most: Every few minutes, the announcer would cut in to say that the White House
would have a statement from the president on the incident shortly. The tone and
context implied that this was something everyone was anxiously awaiting. I got
the impression that everyone involved thought the president would be derelict
in his duty if he didn’t hurry up and say something.

    And all I could think was: Why? Why would the president say
anything about this, especially at this moment? The people on the scene, the
people who know more than anybody, don’t even know how many victims there are
yet, much less how or why this happened. What in the world is the president
going to be able to add that will be relevant or helpful? I wouldn’t presume to
say anything about it. Why would the president? It’s not his job to do so any
more than it’s mine. More importantly, why does anyone expect him to say

    The last part was what really got me. This was, after all,
happening in Littleton, Colo., and was the responsibility of the local
authorities there. No one had suggested that there was anything about this that
bore upon the powers and duties of the federal government.

    Yet the nation was presumably breathless to hear what the
president had to say about it. And you know what? Those announcers were
probably right. The truth is, the nation has increasingly come to expect the
president to weigh in on such things.

    If something happens somewhere in the nation that makes
headlines, we expect the president to do something about it _ or at least to
say something. If there’s a flood or an earthquake, there’s a demand for the
president to drop everything and go fly over it, to let us know he cares.

    This makes no sense, but then, it’s not supposed to. It’s
about emotion, not reason. But for my money, there are far too many actions and
decisions taken in the public sphere on the basis of emotion already. We don’t
need any more of it.

    What provoked this rant? A David Broder column in The
Washington Post. Mr. Broder doesn’t usually set me off like this. He is, in
fact, the columnist I admire most. He’s calm, rational and knowledgeable. But
when he argues that George W. Bush is falling short as president because he
doesn’t have something eloquent to say about every major news development
across the nation, I just have to break with him.

    Dubya has a lot of faults. He’s a mushmouth. He lacks what I
consider to be an adequate respect for the environment. To the extent that he
has an overarching foreign policy vision _ and I’m not sure yet whether he does
_ I suspect that it is too isolationist for my taste. For these and other
reasons, he was not my first choice to be president.

    But he has his virtues as well. He seems to be a pretty fair
manager. He knows how to assemble a team and let it do its job. Vision or no, he
seems to deal effectively with specific foreign policy issues as they arise _
the confrontation with China over our surveillance aircraft being an instance
that Mr. Broder rightly cites.

    But my very favorite thing about President Bush is that he
seems content to be the chief executive of the federal government, and feel
absolutely no obligation to be the nation’s Chief Empathizer. No urge at all to
go on television every day and bite his lip, give a thumbs-up, shed a tear and
let us know he feels our pain.

    I really, really appreciate that.

    And I’m not just saying this to put down Mr. Bush’s
predecessor. The greater problem lies with us _ the press and the public. We
simply expect things of a president that are not a legitimate function of the
job. After Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, many complained indignantly that
Bush pere failed to rush right down here. Mind you, he had immediately declared
the state a disaster area.

    "This other stuff, like flying over the damaged area,
is largely PR, although I admit good PR. But what does that accomplish?"
one politico said in defending him. "What you’re asking me is, why didn’t
Bush have a photo op?" Exactly. Bill Clinton’s weakness in that regard was
that he enjoyed the photo ops too much.

    If it weren’t David Broder complaining about it, I’d say
this was a case of a Washington journalist feeling a loss of his own power
because the president refuses to use his bully pulpit to make everything that
happens anywhere a federal case, thereby making Washington _ and its vast media
army _ the center of attention. With the Cold War over, Washington has had to
look in previously unexamined boxes to find issues to justify its continued
paramount importance.

    But this is David Broder, and I know he seriously believes
that these matters should be on the president’s priority list. I just think
he’s wrong.

    Sure, there are national, non-Washington stories that are
very much the president’s business, and demand that he exercise leadership
before the nation _ the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance. But that was a
deliberate attack, not only upon a federal building and the people in it but
upon the entire notion of the federal government. The Colorado shootings, as
tragic and horrific as they were, lacked that feature.

    Similarly, the president’s failure to step to the fore
regarding the riots in Cincinnati is by no means a serious "leadership
omission," as Mr. Broder characterized it. As he further writes, "The
incident was local." He goes on to say that "the problem of police-minority
relations is national and important."

    Indeed. But it is national mainly in the sense that it is a
problem in local jurisdictions all over the country. If the riots were about
what the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had done, we’d be
talking federal interest. But we’re not in this case.

    At some point, there will be an issue that I, too, will want
Mr. Bush to care about more than he does. But for now, I find his reticence a
welcome relief.

Oh, and back to where I started — I don’t blame Mr. Obama for trying to resonate on the anniversary of the slaughter at Blacksburg. That’s what presidential candidates are expected to do these days, especially if they are Democrats, and most especially if they are falling behind among women (yes, I think there’s a gender gap in this issue somewhere). Maybe Hillary Clinton and even John McCain have put out similar releases, and I just haven’t seen them yet.

I just don’t think they should be expected to do it.

8 thoughts on “Presidential resonance: One of my pet peeves

  1. Phillip

    I agree with you 100% when it comes to the immediate comment from a President, such as with Columbine when not even all the facts were in yet.
    But while I acknowledge that there’s also an arbitrariness to anniversaries, I think it’s more appropriate for a President or Prez candidate to comment on such things after some time, say, a year, has passed. And when I say such things, I’m proposing that issues such as the outrageous number of deaths by gun violence in this country compared to other nations ARE most certainly legitimate topics of discussion for a national leader.

  2. Lee Muller

    There is no such thing as “gun violence”. It’s a nonsense propaganda phrase to animate firearms and blame them for the evil of men who misuse them.
    Back when VA Tech issued rifles to its cadets and they kept them in their barracks, there was respect for firearms, and for fellow students, which does not exist in the cultural meltdown brought by modern liberalism.

  3. felix prufrock

    This column about the non-resonance of resonance really resonates with me.
    I think we should celebrate the anniversary of this post every year.

  4. Lee Muller

    I just showed you a university where no one was attacked with any weapon for over 150 years – VA Tech. It’s the culture, or lack of it. Liberals want to destroy Western Culture, then whine when their hippie culture of self-indulgence and bitter victimhood produces hordes of warped sociopaths.

  5. bud

    Bush-haters hated him way before Iraq.
    Brad, you’re having a very bad day here. The tax post was simply disgusting. Then you had the audacity to blame Obama for something the press is completely responsible for. And now this nonsense. Please spare me your thoughts on what I think.
    That statement is just plain flat out WRONG. This Bush hater was indifferent in the 2000 election preferring to vote third party that year. Only in the fullness of time was it apparent that this man was totally clueless. Iraq was the defining moment for this president. Had he performed his duties as president the way he said I would not have come to loathe him so. Disagree on many issues, absolutely; but loathe, no. His almost child-like obsession with that country doomed us to an unnecessary invasion of a harmless country that has so far cost us a trillion dollars and 4,000+ soldiers.
    So do NOT assume how we Bush haters have come to that conclusion. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

  6. ruintuit

    I have to align with Brad on this one. This rush to have the POTUS drop everything to make an immediate statement (most cases before the incident is resolved or the facts gathered) is a double-edged sword: Damned by the media if you say nothing…damned if you do make a comment and it turns out that it was based on faulty or incomplete information. One also must wonder what important business was dropped for the required television appearance.
    In moments of human tragedy I would much rather see the POTUS (as well as POTUS candidates) remain silent than feel that he/she is using others’ suffering as a PR opportunity. It’s amazing to me that anyone thinks otherwise.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Damn’ straight.
    And bud — sorry, but Bush hating has a long provenance. I have the distinct memory of wondering why so many people hated the guy, back before 9/11.
    All I can gather is that it was residual bitterness from the 2000 election outcome. But no, there was more to it than that. It was VISCERAL….


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