Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Obama, Dick, and Andy: "I Wanna Talk About Me"

About a year ago, Barack Obama caused a personal pronoun stir when reported that he used the first person pronouns "I" and "me" a combined total of 117 times in a single speech.  But, however, Obama is far from alone in "wanting to talk about me."

About a year and six weeks before the oft reported July 2012 speech, blogger Marc Cenedella reported an analysis of Obama speeches given at CIA headquarters compared with several of his predecessors.  Since 1968, Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George W. Bush referred to themselves the least often.  George H. W. Bush gets a pass for a slightly higher level because he once was CIA chief, which would lead to more first person mentions.

By far, the three highest levels of use came from Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  Clinton's high use shrinks when Cenedella factors in the length of the addresses.  The famously loquacious Clinton drops down to Bushian levels of first person pronoun use while Obama and Nixon remain higher than the rest.

In his 1960 work Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, famed American historian Eric McKitrick examined another president persistent in his employment of first person pronouns.

About Johnson, he wrote :

For a public man, he was obsessed with himself to a degree that exceeded the normal, and most of his speeches, no matter what else they dealt with, may be read as demands for personal vindication and personal approval.

McKitrick also concluded that Johnson preferred general rules to concrete thinking "in order that (his mind) might once more close itself and be at rest."

Johnson, at his worst, often evoked images of crucifixion and Judah Iscariot-like betrayal in reference to himself and his enemies.  This worked in the East Tennessee hills where the poor felt just as nailed to a cross by their betters as he did.  But it fell short of the expectations that the national public had for the demeanor of their president.

McKitrick compared the inferiority complex of Johnson to the confidence of Lincoln.  About the 16th president, he said his "'humility' was sustained by the odd arrogance of a superior man's self-knowledge."  Interestingly, this also describes President Reagan and both chief executives of the Bush family.

Nixon's public speaking patterns mimicked McKitrick's evaluation of Johnson, especially early.  Journalist Theodore White remembered almost a decade later that in 1960, Nixon's "common utterances all too frequently a mixture of pathetic self-pity and petulant distemper."  Aide Robert Finch told White in 1968 that Nixon" doesn't want to be loved.  He's not looking for adulation the way he used to."  But that campaign evaluation looks more like Nixon covering than transforming his nature.

The three presidents all share in common some attributes.  All three worked to expand the authority of the executive branch.  None of them could work and play well with anyone except their closest trusted associates. All three had fatal flaws that kept them from functioning comfortably in the role chosen for them by the public.  Nixon enjoyed the most success, but of course unraveled his legacy by covering criminal activities.  Obama and Nixon both preferred layers of secrecy to public examination of their administration's doings.  Conversely, Johnson was perhaps too open about his exact feelings for proposals and personalities.

Of the three, Johnson was far and away the best speaker.  He could address a crowd extemporaneously for hours.  Sure, the crowds sometimes despised him after his efforts, but Johnson could never leave an audience cold.  Obama reads well from a teleprompter, but may be one of the worst presidential speakers if the ability to speak and respond without notes is factored.

Will Obama's presidency end in scandal and/or disgrace as Johnson and Nixon's did?  It certainly has achieved no success that has been of any value to the people. And history's remembrance of Johnson certainly has found echoes in Obama.

History will illuminate more of Obama as years and decades pass, but he has shown enough over the past several years that some conclusions are inescapable.

The most important of these is that Obama has been consistently a much smaller man than the American presidency demands.

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