What would make the practice presidential?
Vice President (but not for much longer) Joe Biden recently advised President-Elect (likewise) Donald Trump to “grow up.” Call it “constructive criticism.” The suggestion came in response to something that Trump had tweeted. As everyone knows, our next President is fond of Twitter. Far too fond, some critics say arguing that he does too much of it. The rest, that he shouldn’t do any at all. That tweeting is, by its nature, undignified and unpresidential.
Now it seems almost self-evidently true that Trump shouldn’t be using Twitter to call the minority leader of the U.S. Senate “a clown.” The people should be permitted to reach this conclusion on their own.
But what about the matter of Tweeting minus the grade school ad hominem? Should Presidents tweet?
Well, one might argue that between Donald Trump impulsively reacting to some fresh slight and Joe Biden pompously delivering a speech about his humble upbringings and how he was given a “platform to stand on,” in a major address which he lifted almost line-for-line from a British politician, most of us would choose the tweet. A 140-character rant takes up far less time and is more easily sloughed off, along with all the other media detritus of the day. Who can remember what Donald Trump tweeted last week? Or even earlier this morning?
And imagine how much time Joe Biden could have saved us all if he had said what he felt he really must say in blasts of 140 characters or less, with all of those epistles using the word “literally,” at least once.
There is a lot not to like about Twitter as an instrument of political discourse. Among its lesser flaws is the fact that it doesn’t leave much room for “nuance.” But, then, on second thought, perhaps that is a virtue. We have been over-served with nuance by the likes of John Kerry and Barack Obama until we are fairly drowning in the stuff. Contrast any of John Kerry’s long-winded explanations of, say, our policy in Syria with something that could be stripped of nuance and compressed into a Tweet. Something, say, on the order of General James Mattis’ celebrated order to his troops:
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.
That would be a tweet that really stood up and saluted. And its lack of nuance is plainly a virtue. No Marine, checking his Twitter feed, would be unclear as to its meaning.
Still, we are supposed to find Twitter somehow unworthy to sit in the temple. This, even as the day-to-day accumulation of verbiage around our political life — the speeches, the press releases, the position papers, in the “insider” newsletters — threaten to fairly bury the mind. And, then, there are the oh-so-long news stories in the “papers of record,” especially the Washington Post. Fred Barnes once described the sensation of coming to the end of a long, long piece in the Post only to see the coda: First of the three-part series.
“Those,” Barnes said, “may be the most depressing words in the English language.”
Brevity, saith Polonius, is the soul of wit. He couldn’t manage to be brief, himself, but it is still good advice. And since our political culture is barren of wit (which is almost always un-PC) it goes in for long-windedness. The great example of this might be the State of the Union Address.
If one were to argue that the world was a better place before Twitter (and there is certainly a case to be made), it seems also undeniable that political life was more civil and congenial before the State of the Union address was broadcast in prime time. This excruciating performance (unfair to call it a speech) deploys thousands of leaden words that bore, first, the people who wrote them and then the person who delivers them, but above all, the people who are obliged to listen to them. Hard to imagine this speech being compressed into a single tweet. Or, even, several tweets. But it would be interesting to see the White House speechwriters give it a try. It might be feasible to do it in a sequence of tweets with the appropriate links which those who are interested in detail could follow. And it would be bracing to read the Presidential tweet on, say, the size of the deficit as … inevitably “Huge.”
With a link, of course, to the CBO’s web page where, if it is words you want, you can most surely find them.
The problem with Trump’s tweets is that so many of them are just crude and humorless. School yard stuff, minus the obscenities and profanities. If he wants to go after Senator Schumer, one thinks, couldn’t he do better than to call him a “clown”? And if he can’t, on his own, come up with something both withering and pithy, then maybe somebody on his staff could do it for him. Perhaps it is time to add a new position to the retinue: Presidential Tweeter. His office would be next to that of the Presidential speechwriters’ and the Presidential Press Secretary.
The Presidential Tweeter would, of course, need to be a master of the short form. Of the dispatch that says it all. And there are many, many bracing examples. He might start by looking to the example of General William Tecumseh Sherman who employed the message sent by telegraph the way Trump uses Twitter.
“Atlanta is ours,” Sherman wired President Lincoln, “and fairly won.” This remains a prime example of “enough said… say no more.” There was more fighting yet to come but the war was won and Lincoln would be re-elected. No need to go on and on.
And then, there was Sherman’s famous declaration regarding the possibility he might run for President, himself. “If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.”
Can’t do much better than that. Works perfectly as a tweet. But imagine Joe Biden or John Kerry answering the same question.
The tweet, it seems, does not by its nature have to be crude and vulgar. It could be as eloquent at MacArthur’s statement upon leaving the Philippines. “I shall return.”
Got it, General.
You want policy summed up in a tweet. Consult Milton Friedman.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” There are volumes of free market arguments contained in that one line which doesn’t even come close the 140 cutoff mark.
Churchill, of course, would have been a marvelous tweeter. Compare Trump calling a political enemy a “clown” to “Mr. Attlee is a modest man, who has much to be modest about.”
That baby would really stand up and trend.
And could you imagine a disciple of Calvin Coolidge in the White House (be still my heart) saying only what absolutely must be said, using Twitter.
There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.
Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.
If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.
The problem with Trump and Twitter, then, is not with the medium but with the message. And, therefore, the messenger. If the President-elect could be persuaded to up his game and aim for dignity and wit, then this means of reaching people might be perfect for the times and for his term in office.
Unfortunately, that’s not how he rolls… or tweets.
Photo credit: Michael Vadon/Creative Commons