It certainly was regarded as one once. Back in the ancient days when there were just three TV networks and no cable, Americans didn’t even complain that all three would be broadcasting Presidential addresses at once, causing them to miss “Sugarfoot,” “McHale’s Navy,” or “The Gale Storm Show.” Ratings for Presidential speeches have been steadily declining, however, since the advent of cable and satellite TV, and the perpetual campaign mode of recent Presidencies has played a role as well.
I am a American Presidency enthusiast, as if you couldn’t tell, and I feel guilty about skipping President Obama’s address on the economy last night, as I feel guilty every time I re-arrange my sock drawer when POTUS speaks to the nation. That’s been my habit for a long, long time. Yes, I never miss inaugural addresses, and I always watch the State of the Union speech, though that commitment is on life support. The rest? If there is a genuine and immediate crisis, an announcement of war or something similarly earth-shattering, I’ll be in the TV audience. Addresses like last night’s, however—-vaguely political speeches calculated to bolster support, spin bad news or bash the opposition—-those I just can’t tolerate, and haven’t for decades.
Let’s see: I couldn’t stand watching Johnson, because he was such an awkward speaker, and I kept thinking of David Frye’s hilarious impressions of him. I wouldn’t watch Nixon because I assumed he was lying. I skipped Ford because he looked so brain-dead that it scared me (I know he wasn’t, but he looked and sounded that way.) I refused to watch Carter because he was sanctimonious and dislikable (to me at least), and I thought he had no clue about what Presidential leadership was. I usually skipped Reagan, entertaining as his speeches were, because they were performances and manipulative, so I didn’t trust them. Bush Sr. obviously hated giving speeches, and it showed: it was clear that he wished he could be someplace else, so why should I not do what he wanted to? With Clinton, as with Nixon, I felt I was being lied to, with the added annoyance that Bill seemed to be enjoying it. W., who can be fun to listen to when he’s shooting from the hip, was just an awful, awful speaker, and it made me angry (as it did with Carter), because there is no excuse for a President not being better at a core skill of the office. You know, there are excellent speech coaches, and they can do wonders with speaking-challenged subjects, even ones as marble-mouthed as Bush. The problem is fixable, dammit, fix it!
And President Obama? I regard him as a lecturer, not an orator, and I have never had any tolerance for lectures. If he speaks candidly and from the heart, as he did in his speeches about race and civility, Obama is certainly worth listening to. Last night’s address, however, was obviously going to be a campaign speech masquerading as an address, and that means that it was massaged by pollsters and consultants, and would be filled with focus group-approved phrases and spin. When I read the speech this morning, it was obvious that my assessment was correct.
Yet I still feel guilty. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the days when the Presidency wasn’t such a polarizing office, when one didn’t get the feeling that the Chief Executive spent most of his time going to fundraisers and making speeches to various groups, rather than being engaged in the real business of running the country for the benefit of all Americans. Maybe I’m longing for the days when someone wasn’t protesting against the President every minute of every day, when popular radio and TV talk show hosts (and not just the lunatic fringe like the John Birch Society) didn’t routinely accuse our President of being a traitor and someone who hates America. Maybe I wish there was a way to return to a time when the Presidency was considered a national office foremost, and less a partisan office, and when expressing hatred against any President, in office or out, was considered un-patriotic and socially unacceptable.
That is surely part of it. Another part, and I think a greater one, is that generations of Presidents have degraded Teddy’s “bully pulpit” with abuse and over-exposure. TV has been too hard to resist, and where once a President like Jack Kennedy would only take to the tube to announce something of desperate importance—like Russian missiles discovered in Cuba—now it’s just another media tactic, an infomercial, like selling washboard abs.
OK, things change. If the President is going to use his privilege of addressing the nation like that, then no, we don’t have a civic duty to listen. It isn’t a civic duty any more, because the progressive abuse of addresses by 50 years of Presidents has made t that way.
But we would be a healthier and more united country, and one that was easier to govern, if watching the President’s address to the nation could become a civic duty again.