Most of the obituaries of former Republican Senate leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who died on Sunday at 98, noted a seeming paradox: Though he ran for president three times and won the GOP nomination in 1996, he never seemed to master how to talk like a president, or even a presidential candidate. Instead, he spoke in the argot of the Senate, made even more impenetrable to lay listeners by his prairie taciturnity.
To some degree, we expect those who seek the presidency, and even more those who attain it, to elevate our concerns and values when they speak to us, ideally through the use of pleasing or exciting cadences, even when theyre just running through a laundry list of programs. (Donald Trump, to be sure, never had programs; he spoke to his supporters id-to-id.) Somehow, a serious Senate career seems inimical to that goal. The two most eloquent presidents of the past 60 yearsJohn F. Kennedy and Barack Obamawere in the Senate but never of it, just passing through while warming up to play on a larger stage.
Bob Dole, by contrast, was a senator to his bones, and never had the capacity, or desire, to break out of Senate-ese. As the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, he drove his speechwriters to affectionate despair as he ignored their presidential-appropriate texts to speak instead in his Upper House shorthand. I recall one Dole rally I covered for the LA Weekly, where he bemoaned the supposed overreach of Bill Clintons administration and called on his fellow Americans to relocate government away from Washington and back to the states. And how did he present this idea? Tenth Amendment, he proclaimed, Tenth Amendment! That amendment, in its entirety, reads:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
But for those in the crowd who didnt know what that amendment saidI judged it to be well in excess of 95 percentDole never bothered to explain what the Tenth Amendment said.
On very rare occasions, he did stick to his speechwriters texts. After one such performance, according to the New York Times obituary, he told reporters, Stayed on message. Every time I do that reconnect government to values stuff, I feel like a plumber.
Joe Biden spent even more years in the Senate than Bob Dole, and he seems to have emerged with somewhat better command of presidential English. Hes been curiously reluctant to display it, however, by virtue of avoiding the mass audience altogether. To be sure, he travels to events to tout one program or another. But the kind of serious program-selling to the American people that his agenda clearly requires has been nowhere in evidence. Prime-time TV talks from the Oval Office, to make the case for the still largely obscure elements of the Build Back Better bill, havent happened. On the contrary, its been Republicans and Joe Manchin whove defined the bill to the public as a massive spending endeavor, messages they pound on with a daily remorselessness.
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Effective messaging is a function of both quality (choosing the best arguments and words) and quantity (making those arguments over and over again to the largest audience possible). Dole was deficient on the quality side; Biden, on the quantity. It may be, as Ive written here, that his aides fear his fluffing his lines, but if the antidote to that is not to deliver any lines at all, then both Biden and his party are in trouble in upcoming elections.
One master of the Senate (Robert Caros phrase) who seldom warmed to presidential prose was Lyndon Johnson, who suffered unfairly for being thrust on center stage after the assassination of the most eloquent president America had had in many years. But there was one occasion when Johnsons language memorably soared. In 1965, a few days after Alabama cops savagely beat the peaceful demonstrators crossing a bridge in Selma (an attack which led every newscast that night), Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to call for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. Johnson implored and demanded that Congress enact the bill, with all the rhetorical force that speechwriter Richard Goodwin had put on the page and Johnson could convey to the nation. As I noted in a piece I wrote for the Prospect when Goodwin died in 2018,
the speech was about more than the bill, more even than voting rights. It labeled white racism as Americas abiding curse and invoked both the best of our values and the lessons of Johnsons youth, teaching impoverished Latino schoolchildren, to make the case why America had to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. To which Johnson then famously added, And we shall overcome.
I cite this speech, of course, because, just as Johnson rose to this occasion, so Biden must rise to oppose our reversion to denying the ballot to minorities, the poor, and the young, whose presence at the polls Republicans are determined to deter, an assault on democracy with which Senate Democrats still wedded to the filibuster appear inclined to concur. If the right to vote is impeded by Bidens aides reluctance to put him center stage, we need either new aides or a new president.