How Presidents Fulfill Their Role As Consoler-In-Chief

Oct 31, 2018
Originally published on October 31, 2018 9:22 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When President Trump and his family were in Pittsburgh yesterday, they placed stones at a memorial for the victims of the synagogue shooting. The president made no public remarks though he did later post a tweet.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

He wrote that Pittsburgh had treated him warmly and showed the office of the president great respect on a sad and solemn day. He tweeted that he never saw protesters.

CHANG: Just after the synagogue shooting on Saturday, Trump did speak publicly. First, he was off the cuff.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.

SHAPIRO: Some people criticized him for that because it sounded like he was directing blame at the victims. Later he took a different tone in a scripted speech.

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TRUMP: This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It's an assault on humanity.

CHANG: This is a role every president plays - the consoler in chief. And here to talk more with us on how presidents lead in times of tragedy is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So when did presidents start taking on this role? I mean, has it been a political tradition since the beginning of the presidency, or has it evolved over time?

ELVING: It's been something presidents did for a long time but usually in a rather formal, written, usually distant fashion. And then comes the broadcast age. And after a natural disaster or after a national tragedy, the president is expected to speak. And a lot of Americans who remember that modern tradition of it - if they remember Ronald Reagan at all, he was so good at it. And really what people look back to is that moment when the Challenger spacecraft blew up in flight and killed seven astronauts in 1986.

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RONALD REAGAN: We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them - this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

ELVING: It was chilling. It was warming. It was moving. And everyone who remembers the president saying it in real time - that is their Challenger moment.

CHANG: Of course, not all presidents were known for being great orators the way Ronald Reagan was - for example, President George W. Bush. But he was known for spontaneous moments. Like, right after 9/11, there was this moment where he was standing on the rubble at Ground Zero - the Twin Towers were still smoldering in the background. And he grabs a bullhorn.

ELVING: Well, the president was there to tour the ruins. And looking around with that sense that we all had of utter helplessness, someone shouts out...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We can't hear you.

ELVING: ...We can't hear you. And the president hadn't been trying to be heard. But he suddenly heard that voice.

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GEORGE W BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: So part of what made Bush's spontaneous remarks such a hit and so much a part history was because he addressed this issue of retribution, revenge. And revenge was what the country was thirsting for. But sometimes and more often, a president's address at a moment like this is also responsive to what people are feeling but is calling for forgiveness.

CHANG: I'm thinking about President Obama. It was shortly after the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. He breaks into song during the eulogy of one of the victims.

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BARACK OBAMA: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

ELVING: He was so moved that he literally burst into song in that fashion - and, of course, counting on the congregation to join in with him as well.

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OBAMA: (Singing) ...That saved a wench like me.

CHANG: I mean, these are moments that really draw out the distinct different kinds of leadership skills in each of these presidents.

ELVING: At times of national tragedy, the nation is in the habit of looking for someone to play the role of a sympathetic parent if you will - someone to provide reassurance, empathy, uplift. We want someone to organize our grief for us, rally our spirits and begin the process of healing.

CHANG: Let's talk now about how President Trump has tried to fill this role. After some of the hurricanes that we've had during his presidency, President Trump has gone to the site - in Texas, in Florida, Puerto Rico - and has tried to represent the country and the country's embrace of these victims. At times, it's worked. At other times, it's been quite awkward - particularly in Puerto Rico. And then there was the quickie news conference that he had after the Charlottesville disturbance in 2017 equating - or some people felt he was drawing up an equivalence between some of the people who came to rally as white supremacists, as white nationalists, as Nazis and the people who came to protest that rally.

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TRUMP: I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don't have any doubt about it either.

CHANG: Do you think this way that Trump reacts in times of tragedy - do you think that that's a decision he is deliberately making about how to react? Or is he just someone who's uncomfortable playing the role of the empathetic consoler?

ELVING: In fairness, public shows of empathy are not President Trump's strong suit. He did not promise that sort of a presidency when he ran. Let's face it. He has a great talent for bonding with rally audiences. And it's just less comfortable for him to acknowledge the sorrowful details of a tragedy, such as Pittsburgh, and far less comfortable for him to yield to critics who urge him toward introspection.

CHANG: But should presidents be judged if they're not good at consoling the country in times of tragedy?

ELVING: No president should be judged solely on that one particular part of his role that he has least control of. But there are going to be those people who are going to feel that a president should be able to provide something at a moment such as this that goes beyond a political observation and address the nation's needs and hunger at the level of the soul.

CHANG: That's NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Thank you so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES BRADLEY SONG "THE TELEPHONE SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.