Article II of the U.S. Constitution grants the president the explicit power to sign or veto legislation, command the armed forces, issue pardons, receive ambassadors, and make treaties. Surely, the Founding Fathers did not envision the additional implied and invented responsibilities that presidents would also have to fulfill. Such roles include Chief Diplomat and Chief Legislator and standard-bearer of a political party and, especially relevant these past few weeks, the consoler-in-chief. President Trump likely enjoys all his expressed and implied responsibilities—except for the last one.
Before leaving the White House to visit El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH (scenes of recent mass shootings), Trump refuted accusations that his anti-immigrant rhetoric influenced the El Paso shooter, who had written an online manifesto that warned of a “Hispanic invasion.” Despite his mockery and scorn for political enemies and victims, Trump still asserts that his “rhetoric brings people together.”
Quite the contrary. And even if actions speak louder than words, Trump once again does no better.
Just left Dayton, Ohio, where I met with the Victims & families, Law Enforcement, Medical Staff & First Responders. It was a warm & wonderful visit. Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love. Then I saw failed Presidential Candidate (0%) Sherrod Brown & Mayor Whaley totally…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
When flying from Dayton to El Paso, Trump watched coverage of Vice President Biden’s speech in Iowa that blamed Trump for the recent white supremacy flare-up as well as a news conference held by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. On Twitter, Trump went after all three in a tone reserved for derisive political hackery not optimistic and hopeful oratory after a national tragedy. In addition, neither of his prepared remarks in either city did little to inspire or console—few people were brought “together” by his rhetoric. His actions only seemed to make things worse. When taking a photo with a baby whose father and mother were killed during the El Paso shooting, Trump grins and gives a thumbs up.
Trump supporters have argued that a president does not need to shed tears to empathize with victims and heal a wounded nation or community. Point taken. People have different ways of handling adversity and suffering. Some may accept the pain, others may seek vengeance, or rationalize the pain, or cry, or laugh. Whatever it is, everyone emotes something different. Trump, however, appears unmoved. The photo of him with the orphaned child in El Paso is indistinguishable from a photo taken at a Trump campaign rally. Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Trump’s failure in moral leadership is not just because he still spews hate against his political enemies, but because he acts so indifferent to this country’s victims.
Presidents need not cry in the face of national tragedy, but they should say and do something that heals and unites the nation—in their own unique way. When John F. Kennedy was slain by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress and the nation five days later. LBJ sought to console the nation through action. “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long,” LBJ quipped. By doing so, Johnson believed the country would move forward by putting “an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence…and [turn away] those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.”
While only a presidential candidate at the time, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a famed extemporaneous address in Indianapolis from the back of a pick-up truck moments after he received word that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. RFK chose to console through mutual grief and empathy. For the first time, RFK publicly talked about his brother’s death and all the pain and suffering he had endured when he lost someone so close to him and the nation. He analogized his brother’s death to Dr. King’s death. “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.” According to RFK, this suffering reminded us that the U.S. needed more “love and wisdom” and “compassion toward one another” regardless of skin color.
When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, President Reagan, in the words of the New York Times’ R.W. Apple, Jr. had to “identify with the ensuing national grief – lead the mourning, in a sense – but he must also confine it and direct,” otherwise the national mood would evolve into “despair and futility.” Reagan chose to console by rationalizing that the lives of the perished astronauts were worth their sacrifices. He surely delivered. “We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them,” he said. That type of “rhetoric” really does “bring people together.”
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush faced the biggest American tragedy in recent history. He had to inspire a nation with hope and pride while rallying all citizens and allies against Al-Qaeda. Bush’s finest hour was extemporaneous—just like RFK’s. As he stood amidst the rubble at Ground Zero, he grabbed a bullhorn and began speaking. When a voice in the back yelled, “I can’t hear you,” Bush swiftly replied, “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.” Bush decided to console via vengeance. He and the rest of the country sought retribution against the evil actors who had caused such an awful tragedy.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama endured a similar challenge to the one Trump has faced in recent weeks. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building on Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, Clinton conveyed consolation through reassurance. “We pledge to do all we can to help you heal the injured, to rebuild this city, and to bring to justice those who did this evil,” Clinton said. In short, Oklahoma would not be forgotten. When a white supremacist gunman killed nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Obama’s most powerful moment happened not through prose but verse. He began to sing “Amazing Grace” and the rest of the church followed him. Obama brought consolation through remembrance and hope.
Throughout all these tragedies, American presidents have responded in unique ways, but they all shared a common theme: we care. We understand. Do not fear. Justice and peace will ultimately prevail. Instead, Trump has tweeted and uttered a few words of regret scripted by his staff and gone back to his divisive speeches and tweets.
But Americans are clamoring for moral leadership. A 2018 American Barometer survey found that 83 percent of Americans believe the president should act as “the consoler in chief after a national tragedy.” Yet before I began to write this speech, I could not fully understand why. Perhaps I have become jaded by these past two-and-a-half years, but when Don Baer, Clinton’s speechwriter during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings said that these consolation speeches have the “potential to remind people what’s best about America, which is our dedication to higher principles,” I wondered what “higher principles” do we practice anymore? But in reviewing those speeches from empathetic American leaders, I realized that Americans yearn for these heartfelt messages because this country is based on the belief that we are a “shining city on a hill” and hope that in our worst moments of sorrow and suffering, we will emerge stronger and better than ever before.
Trump has no clue that our nation’s commitment to embodying the “better angels of our nature” is what makes America so great. That’s why he can never deliver such a potent speech.