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Setting a moral tone (Scripps Howard News Service) April 8, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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We call it the most powerful job in the world, but the U.S. presidency carries a lot more responsiblity than authority. A president quickly learns that much of his power is persuasive and that the words he utters from what Teddy Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit” of the presidency may be more influential than the performance of his official duties.

President Bush has spent more than a little time in the bully pulpit during his first year in office. His speech to Congress and the nation after Sept. 11 may be the most important presidential address since World War II. We remember his words of sympathy spoken from the pulpit of the National Cathedral and his megaphone pep rally from the back of a pickup truck in New York. Both the president and the people seem to have gotten past his occasional strained syntax to the point where his messages are clearly stated and well received.

A careful student of President Bush’s rhetoric will note one big change from his predecessor: Moral values are a huge part of his vocabulary and his leadership. Not since Ronald Reagan have we seen a president who is so clearly guided by his sense of right and wrong, and who communicates that so consistently in his messages. In short, President Bush has brought moral values back to the national conversation.

Consider the evidence:

– In his speech at Qinghua University in China, the president’s remarks centered on his faith and how that has shaped his “moral core.” He called upon the Chinese to welcome freedom of religion and to end persecution.

– In his State of the Union Message, he referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea, not in pragmatic terms as enemies, but in moral terms: an “axis of evil.”

– The president has painted the war on terrorism in the moral tones of good versus evil. In a speech last month in Florida he said: “The way I view this is we’re fighting evil and I don’t see any shades of gray.”

– When Bush shared his decision about stem-cell research, he spoke of “moral hazards,” “ethical questions” and “moral dilemmas.”

– Even in a seemingly practical matter like foreign trade, the president saw its possibilities for political freedom and human rights and spoke of it as “a moral imperative.”

Clearly and consistently, President Bush speaks in personal and moral terms, not social or economic ones, about the national agenda and America’s role in the world. This stands in marked contrast to President Clinton, who was clearly the better communicator but operated from a pragmatic, not a moral, base. Representative, in some ways, of a generation of moral relativists, Clinton did not lead with a clear moral compass. Indeed, a survey of historians and political scientists ranked him last among presidents in “moral authority.”

Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator” of modern presidents, understood the importance of setting a moral tone. For Reagan, the Soviet Union was not just an enemy, but “an evil empire.” Its downfall would come not only for strategic and economic reasons but also because “they deny the very existence of God.” Reagan’s goal was to make American “stronger not just economically and militarily, but also morally and spiritually.” Overly modest, perhaps, Reagan claimed, “I wasn’t a great communicator but I communicated great things.”

Many forces work to limit the role of moral, ethical and spiritual values in our culture today. All the modern “isms” share some of the blame: moral relativism, postmodernism, secular humanism, to name a few. Mostly we have become a society so focused on tolerance of everyone’s individual rights and opinions that we dare not speak a word that might offend or seem judgmental. When the president of my alma mater was asked whether they teach “values” on campuses today, he answered truthfully: “No, we wouldn’t know what values to teach.” Such is the state of affairs in American education and culture, but here President Bush finds opportunity for his moral vision.

As presidential historian Marshall Wittman said of President George W. Bush: “The president expresses a moral clarity that resonates with the American people. That is his greatest strength.” Carrying out the complexities of the modern presidency with moral vision, and restoring values to the national conversation, are remarkable achievements for a one-year president, and will doubtless be an important hallmark of the Bush administration and legacy.

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