Judd Gregg: For a president, words matter

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“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The buck stops here” — President Truman

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — President Kennedy

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” — President Reagan

“I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon” — President George W. Bush

These are some of the phrases that defined the presidents who spoke them.

{mosads}Those words gave the American people a hope and faith that their leader, the president of the United States, had the purpose, resolve and understanding to guide the nation through difficult and challenging times.


It is essential to the success of a president that he is able to lift our spirit — and that he enthusiastically conveys the message of optimism that is at the core of our culture.  

In order to accomplish this, his defining words must not only resonate when they are said. They must also carry a consistent and lasting resolve.

Our people need to be able to believe and rely on the purpose behind those words.

It is said that President Trump does not assimilate the information that affects his decisions through reading, but rather through audio and visual sources. If that is true, he is probably much closer to the manner of learning of the millennial generation than his own baby boomer generation.

One of the side effects of this manner of acquiring knowledge is that language is less attended. The arrangement of words is not as strong an influence. The use of language can become less effective and acute.

But it is still the case that, even in this “time of the tweet,” the effective use of language defines purpose, attracts support and generates confidence.

More important is the need for there to be faith in the words a president speaks.

Even if some portion of Americans do not like or agree with a president — and that will always be the case, no matter who holds the office — he needs to be seen as having integrity behind his defining words. 

In order to be accepted as a leader of purpose, both by those who support him and those who do not, a president must maintain the strength of his words by applying their themes consistently.  

The president cannot be seen as taking his own definitional words casually. If he does, he will have no definition.

A president without definition, and the purpose that comes with it, will not be accepted as a capable leader of the nation.

Trump has given two well thought-out and directional speeches in the last two weeks.

One was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he tried to reset his international image and agenda. The other was his State of the Union address last week, where he effectively set forth his causes and tried to reset his image as a uniter rather then a divider.

Yet even in these two well-prepared speeches, the language did not give a feeling of soaring purpose.  

The president’s excessive reliance on his tweets seems to have stolen from him the ability to use words to raise up his audience. This may change; he may arrive at a cadence that connects more personally with the nation’s need.  

Certainly, both speeches represented a new and welcome stride in that direction.

However, a concern remains. It resonates in the back of the head of everyone who listened to these two speeches; it is that he will not hold the positions or ideas set forth.

He will change his views, adjust his principles and move in a different direction with some future tweet or brief response to a shouted question from a reporter.

The words that define strong presidents cannot be inconsistent. But consistency does not seem to have found this president yet.

He may not believe it — in fact, it is obvious that he does not believe it — but time is running out for him to set a definition of purpose to his presidency.

If he is not going to waste this incredible opportunity to unite our nation, then he must continue what he has started with these two speeches.  

He should use language the way it was supposed to be used. He should say what he believes in a manner that brings forth hope and gives direction to our nation. 

He must stick with those themes of inclusion and strength he outlined in these two speeches.  

His presidency needs this. More importantly, so does the nation.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.

Tags Donald Trump presidential speeches Rhetoric State of the Union

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