Watching President Obama’s speech Tuesday at the memorial service for the Dallas law enforcement officials killed last week, I was struck by both the number of these sorts of tragedy speeches Obama has given and how they have come to reflect his changing views of the power of his office. I reached out to presidential historian Michael Beschloss — he of the AMAZING Twitter feed — to get his perspective on Obama’s tragedy addresses and what they tell us about the man, his presidency and the presidency. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: It seems to me we can track the arc of Obama’s presidency through speeches he has given in the wake of tragedies – from Ft. Hood (2009) to Tucson (2011), Newtown (2012), Charleston (2015) and now Dallas. Agree? Disagree? And what can we learn from how his “tragedy speeches” have changed?
Beschloss: We’re seeing an obvious frustration, when he speaks after these tragedies, that so many have happened. What president wouldn’t feel that way? We sometimes see a more general wistfulness that we didn’t see at the beginning, when he accepted victory in November 2008 in Chicago and told Americans — echoing Martin Luther King on the last night of his life — “We may not get there in one year or even in one term,” but “I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight” and “I promise you, we, as a people, will get there.”
I don’t think Barack Obama, or many others, would have imagined that, almost eight years later, Americans would have to face the kind of terrible events we have witnessed this past week. But in a larger sense, sometimes when the president speaks these days, on all sorts of subjects, there is an undertone of impatience — especially about topics like the deadlock in Washington and Citizens United.
In the Dallas address, we heard a president very conscious of his role as national unifier and consoler and understandably careful in discussing what happened last week. I would bet that we will get a lot closer to a hundred percent of what is really on his mind when he speaks and writes his memoirs after leaving office.
FIX: Obama said this on Tuesday: “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.” That’s remarkable given he has spent much of his presidency defending the power of oratory. What do you make of it?
Beschloss: Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 gave future presidents a warning about expecting too much. At the time, he was reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, and he told a group of students that Lincoln was “a pretty sad man, because he could not do all he wanted to do…and nobody can.”
In a way, it was a burden for Barack Obama to become known to many Americans in 2004 as a result of that Democratic keynote address in Boston, because it later caused some people to assume that every speech he would ever give in the future would be unforgettable. It also provoked some critics later to say of him (as some critics said of Ronald Reagan) that he was mainly just a great communicator.
Thus during his presidency, sometimes he has seemed to be holding back from using rousing language that everyone would remember. Another reason, no doubt, comes from the worry that FDR referred to — about inflating expectations. That’s why Obama said on the night of his first victory, emulating the cautionary language of JFK’s inaugural, that “we may not get there…even in one term.”
FIX: In Charleston and now in Dallas, Obama has spoken quite openly about race – a subject he assiduously ignored while running for president. Is he simply freed to speak about it because he doesn’t have to worry about winning another race? Or has the job of being the first black president fundamentally altered how he views the bully pulpit?
Beschloss: Of course, one of the best speeches he ever gave was the one on race in Philadelphia, during the Democratic primaries of 2008. But even the President has noted that he has spoken more about this subject as time went on. He may have been trying to make sure, early on, that all Americans understood that he was acting, in Lyndon Johnson’s old term, as “president of all the people.” But it is possible that we’re seeing signs of his own emotional and intellectual reactions to what he has experienced as his presidency has unfolded. Here again, his memoirs should tell us a lot.
FIX: Where does the Dallas speech rank in terms of Obama’s most effective/most historically relevant?
Beschloss: Elegant, moving and powerful but it’s impossible to know how it will loom historically until we see what happens afterwards. For example, until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech of 1987 was viewed by many people at the time it was delivered as rhetorical boilerplate. But once the Wall was gone, people reassessed it. What they noticed this time was Reagan’s idealism that what many had considered unthinkable might actually happen — and the degree to which Reagan’s challenge helped to bring the Wall down. With hindsight, they realized that Reagan had given a great and world-changing speech.