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Presidents Should Be Quiet

Joe Biden will hopefully avoid a mistake made by his immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who both talked too much.

President Theodore Roosevelt said that the White House is a "bully pulpit," using the term "bully," not in its negative sense as a noun, but as an adjective meaning "first rate." The fact that everything a president says gets national attention presents a terrible temptation to talk all the time.

Presidents should resist this temptation. It is too easy to talk nonsense when you don't think about it first. As the Spanish proverb puts it, "La boca cerrada no tiene mosca." ("The closed mouth has no flies.")

And too many words from the president can be exhausting for the public. Two years ago my wife and I were in Oxford for 10 days. I developed a bad cold and spent three days drinking pots full of tea and reading English newspapers. They were fascinating, full of European news and passionate disagreements about the upcoming Brexit. It only occurred to me afterwards that they were not full of reports about Donald Trump's latest tweets or announcements. I found this refreshing.

Although I sometimes felt that Barack Obama talked too much, Donald Trump has vastly outdone him

Although I sometimes felt that Barack Obama talked too much, Donald Trump has vastly outdone him, sometimes putting out dozens of tweets in one day. He even, I think, inspired a new word: tweetstorm.

As Maureen Dowd put it, "every time he opens his mouth, 50 headlines jump out."

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Trump's domination of the headlines in American papers reminds me of a statement by Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, who claimed that her father "always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening." Americans shouldn't have to travel to Oxford to get away from this kind of thing.

Trump's obsession with getting public attention may have been an unfortunate holdover from his days as an entertainer for whom a prime need was to attract as many eyeballs as possible.

An effective leader does not need to dominate the headlines every day. Charles de Gaulle, an excellent French leader, deliberately limited his pronouncements so that when he spoke it would be a real occasion.

When it comes to speaking out Biden hopefully will emulate Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). Coolidge's nicknames tell us a lot about his leadership style: Silent Cal, Cool Cal, The Sphinx of the Potomac, Cautious Cal. Stories about his reluctance to say much are legion. When asked what the preacher had said at a service he had attended, Coolidge supposedly replied "sin." When they asked him what the preacher had said about it , the reply was simply: "He was against it." Another anecdote had a dinner companion who had made a bet that she could get Coolidge to say three words. When she told him about this, Coolidge replied: "You lose!"

Despite his personal reticence, Coolidge was an effective public speaker. But he was very cautious in his pronouncements. "The words of the president have an enormous weight," he wrote after leaving the White House, "and ought not be used indiscriminately."

Donald Trump could have been a more effective leader if he had not talked so much, including brainstorming in public about possible treatments for COVID-19. It made sense when some of his supporters urged us to evaluate him on the basis of his actions rather than of his words. A supporter, Sen. Marco Rubio, suggested that Trumpism with a mute button for the president might have been better.


Biden has the opportunity and, I believe, the good sense to act so that his supporters will never yearn for that mute button.

Paul F. deLespinasse