Henningsen: The Bully Twitter Pulpit

Feb 20, 2017

All presidents seek to employ new media to enhance their power to connect directly with the public. Few were more successful than Franklin Roosevelt with radio and John Kennedy on television.

Each sought to accomplish three things. First, to inform Americans of a major problem or crisis facing the nation. Second, to instruct them on the government’s response to the difficulty. And, third, to inspire unified support for their plans and, in doing so, to reinforce Americans’ confidence in their government.

Both Roosevelt and Kennedy understood that success at informing, instructing, and inspiring depended on a third word – also beginning with “i” – infrequency. They appreciated the danger that overuse could lead to overexposure; they knew how quickly novelty became commonplace; and they correctly believed that boredom was fatal to democracy. Hence, they rationed their use of the “bully pulpit”. FDR offers the best example. During his twelve years as president, he delivered only thirty Fireside Chats, most lasting less than fifteen minutes. Our inaccurate historical memory of people cozying up to the radio and listening to Roosevelt every week demonstrates the lasting impact of his selective use of the medium. The same is true of Kennedy’s use of prime-time.

By these standards, President Trump’s incessant tweeting should have declining impact and Americans will come to give it the same level of attention usually afforded to the morning comics.

I’m not so sure. The modern communication and technological revolution has not only created a 24/7 media environment in which every minor development is hyped for maximum impact; it’s turned most of us into addicts, desperate for our regular jolt of whatever’s new. Whether what’s new is important – whether it’s even new – doesn’t seem to matter. Our attention span has become so short that far from becoming bored by repetition, we crave it.

When picking up her mail, essayist Dorothy Parker is said to have declared: “What fresh hell is this?” And while history suggests that the nation will ultimately grow tired of our president’s Twitter habit, it’s perhaps more likely that we’ll continue to greet his morning Tweets in a fashion similar to Parker’s.

But for an administration that seems to prize turmoil as much as Roosevelt and Kennedy valued reassurance and confidence, that’s probably just fine.