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The Bully Pulpit

By January 1, 2009 No Comments
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Moderator Tom Brokaw on the December 7th edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked
Barack Obama what changes he and wife Michelle planned to bring to the White House.
Obama replied that the President’s house would serve as a “bully pulpit.” Such a phrase
might be interpreted in a pejorative way unless we know its history. President Theodore
Roosevelt wielded constructive power from his bully pulpit. To “bully” doesn’t always mean
verbally browbeating enemies. The British shout “bully” when a dashing, jovial thespian
takes a bow for her excellence on stage. “Bully” is a term of endearment, glad affirmation.

From his bully pulpit in the White House, Obama will invite poets and artists to help
raise our national spirit. He’ll broadcast from the President’s house workshops modeling
how parents can effectively instruct their children by reading stories. Obama told Brokaw
how he envisions turning the White House into a pulpit, forging creative ideas that build
hope in hard times.

Obama speaks like he’s a preacher at heart. His national addresses use poetic language,
which Wordsworth famously described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
Obama employs evocative language to motivate citizens who then act on the “better angels
of our nature,” as his hero Lincoln expressed it. “Attend to preaching,” the Apostle Paul instructed
his young protégé Timothy. “Don’t neglect the gift you have….” (I Timothy 4:13-14).
Obama doesn’t.

He began his presidential campaign on a wintry day in Springfield, Illinois, the town
where Lincoln practiced law until he was elected president in 1860. In fractured times,
caused by a Civil War or by a financial panic gripping Wall Street, Lincoln and Obama
used pulpits inside and outside traditional sanctuaries to lift up a national spirit mired in
malaise. Obama follows a script Lincoln crafted. Noble oratory knits a fractured nation. Appeal
to our prized hopes rather than our terrible fears. Raise citizens’ sights when hardship
makes them downcast. Use cadences reminding us of life’s grandeur. Exchange mediocrity
for excellence.

Obama catches language’s rhythm. He rehearses what Lincoln called the “mystic chords
of memory,” pealing them with a bell’s crystalline clarity. In an article he wrote for Time
three years ago, Obama describes how Lincoln’s portrait affects him:

…Lincoln’s face is as finely lined as a pressed flower. He appears frail, almost
broken; his eyes, averted from the camera’s lens, seem to contain a heartbreaking
melancholy, as if he sees before what the nation had so recently endured.

It would be a sorrowful picture except for the fact that Lincoln’s mouth is turned
ever so slightly into a smile. The smile doesn’t negate the sorrow. But it alters tragedy
into grace. It’s as if this rough-faced, aging man has cast his gaze toward eternity
and yet still cherishes his memories–of an imperfect world and its fleeting,
sometimes terrible beauty. On trying days, the portrait, a reproduction of which
hangs in my office, soothes me; it always asks me questions.

Obama evoked Lincoln’s mastery of language infused with biblical allusions during his
acceptance speech that I heard live at the Democratic National Convention. His sermonic
address cleansed life of its grime. His fluency and depth of meaning stirred the audience.

Thoughtful speech propelled Obama into the White House, as much as a financial
crisis, an unpopular war, and a presidency some scholars like Princeton’s Sean Wilentz
rate as the worst ever. Aristotle taught how political power emerges from rhetoric’s
strong foundation.

Credible preaching may benefit from Obama’s presidency. Elevated discourse is in short
supply. Our visual culture conveys information through pictures on TVs and computer
screens. It downplays good grammar and excellent syntax. In fact, grammar seems to have
been banished to an esoteric realm only those bookish, stilted, and nerdy enter.

Words carrying character and truth work miracles within the human spirit. A greater
Spirit links with our spirits when words, like bandages, heal wounded souls. Eugene Peterson
in Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers
reminds preachers that “…we have a responsibility for returning [blunted and dull words] to
sharpness, cleaning them up, scrubbing off the grime of inappropriate associations. Most
of us are more attentive to keeping the dishes and knives and forks clean that we use to eat
our meals than to keeping in good repair the words we use to speak our love and promises,
our commitments and loyalties.”

Jack Van Ens is executive director of Creative Growth Ministries in Arvada, Colorado.