“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
President Theodore Roosevelt to Lyman Abbott and others, circa 19091
This might be one of the most well-quoted things a president has ever said—if Roosevelt actually said it, since we only have Abbott’s account of it. In one compound sentence, Roosevelt very effectively summarized the primary power of the presidency: persuasion. Since the 1960s, fifty years after Roosevelt made this assessment, the presidency has been regularly referred to as a “bully pulpit.” Unfortunately, in the half century between the quote and its adoption into the political discourse, much of the original meaning has been lost.
About five years ago, I had to make a certificate for students who were doing exceptional work in our history classes. I chose to use a picture of Teddy Roosevelt with a cartoon speech bubble. Inside the bubble, I placed “Bully!” a catchphrase of the twenty-sixth president, which in his day meant “good job” or “well done.”2
But words change meanings over time, and now, “bully” only refers to someone trying to dominate, oppress, or harm another. Not the vibe we were going for.
We had to change the certificate. Not that big of a deal, in the end.
But…when it comes to discussing the presidency, experts should probably have a better understanding of what words mean.
And maybe they do. I should be careful not to assume, but it sure seems like many commentators, analysts, pundits, and even politicians think of the presidency as a pulpit from which one could bully his opponents, rather than as a terrific pulpit from which to inspire and persuade.
If we needed more evidence than the dictionary, we could examine the story Abbott told about Roosevelt’s coining of the phrase. The president was working on a speech and had a handful of people to sit and listen to a draft. Given that this anecdote appears in the February 27, 1909 edition of Abbott’s magazine The Outlook, it’s probably—I’d say likely—that Roosevelt was working on his final annual message to Congress. Today, we call this the “State of the Union” address, and the president delivers to Congress in person in January of each year, not counting inauguration years. However, a century ago, it was just the annual address, written by the president and delivered to Congress to be read by a congressional clerk. Thus, this whole scene described by Abbott probably took place in the White House before December 9, 1908, when Roosevelt sent his address to the legislature.
So, there’s the background. Now, to the immediate context of the anecdote.
Roosevelt had seemingly selected some individuals to listen to his address in order to get their thoughts on it, and as he read the address, he was offering his own commentary. Thus, after reading a paragraph that Abbott thought “of a distinctly ethical character,” Roosevelt himself interjected, predicting the criticism he might receive in response to it.
The accusation of preaching, or moralizing, clearly prompts the analogy of the presidency to a pulpit. We don’t really need to dig into that too deeply. It’s a fairly obvious connection, so our focus remains on “bully.” By using the phrase “such a” before “bully,” Roosevelt was remarking on the degree to which the “pulpit” was terrific, exceptional, amazing, etc., not oppressive or intimidating.
Let’s make this even easier: which sounds more likely?
“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a great pulpit!”
“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a thuggish pulpit!”
Having made a pretty strong case for what Roosevelt meant, I’d like the chance to explain the consequences of getting it wrong.
When we speak of the president in terms of bullying, of grabbing the opposition party by the lapels and demanding they hand over their lunch money/continuing resolutions, we’re tacitly acknowledging the increasingly fractious world of partisan American politics, and we’re adding to the violent rhetoric that has, over the past few years, resulted in actual violence.
When we talk about the presidency as a pulpit from which one can bully others, we are essentially redefining the job as one of intimidation, in which the president must harangue party members not in lock-step, shout down the opposition, all while holding the world hostage to our economic needs.
I don’t think anyone set out to recast the office in this way. No one sat down at a boardroom table and said, “We know why we’re all here: to conceptual transform the “leader of the free world” into an international thug.” No, I think that words have meaning, and, when we alter that meaning, we can unintentionally alter our history and politics.
In closing, having highlighted the historical meaning of “bully,” let me ask that we search for a leader who can use the pulpit of the presidency to persuade, to inspire, to convey the optimism of a “better tomorrow” that has helped to define the American people for centuries.
We don’t need a bully.