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Our need for common sense presidents

On Behalf of | Jul 11, 2021 | Firm News

​Actress Mindy Kaling tweeted the above photo and quote of her character––Kelly Kapoor––from the hit TV series The Office which was to serve as a response to a President Trump’s claim of how smart he was.  “Official US Army Twitter account likes Mindy Kaling’s Trump-mocking tweet”

In the book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, a July 2017 meeting at the Pentagon at which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, among other senior advisors and generals, attempt to brief then President Trump on the current state and projection of military power.  Using lots of visual aids, the men briefed the President on US deployments, bases and embassies around the world, and the value of trade agreements in boosting America’s national security.  Trump responded negatively to their approach.  “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore . . . you’re a bunch of dopes and babies” the commander-in-chief told the meeting attendees.  This prompted Tillerson to refer to Trump as a “fucking moron.”  “Tillerson’s Fury at Trump Required an Intervention From Pence,”  To make sure the public realized he was a “stable genius,” Trump once tweeted, “…Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”  President Trump: ‘My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart’

So do today’s Americans want a smart president?  The answer is no.  We want a common sense president.

In his book, The anti-intellectual presidency: The decline of presidential rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush., Elvin T. Lim, a Professor of Political Science, draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to argue that the ever-increasing pressure for presidents to manage public opinion and perception has created a “pathology of vacuous rhetoric and imagery” where gesture and appearance matter more than accomplishment and fact. Lim tracks the campaign to simplify presidential discourse through presidential and speechwriting decisions made from the Truman to the present administration, explaining how and why presidents have embraced anti-intellectualism and vague platitudes as a public relations strategy.

Perhaps the most telling case is that good old standby, “common sense.” Everybody thinks he or she has it (in spite of doubts about certain relatives) and yet somehow it is also a remarkably rare qualification for high office. Lim points out that the phrase “common sense” or “commonsense” appear in the presidential papers a grand total of 11 times between George Washington and Woodrow Wilson. Since then, it has become far more, well, common — showing up in presidential speeches some 1,600 times.

And while there was a gradual rise in the frequency of reference to common sense between Harding and Nixon, the expression really became a staple of presidential oratory over the past third of a century — “even as (or perhaps because) the common sense has become increasingly divided in our polarized times,” writes Lim.The common sense use of words avoids complex words or involved syntax so that the modern president can be assured of regular and stormy eruptions of applause from the public.  It is an interesting question to ask why are outbursts of applause in transcripts of presidential speeches? Lim explains that from the Carter presidency onward (and with a huge spike under Clinton) applause became, says Lim, “a litmus test of presidential accomplishment that successive White House press offices have deemed important enough to record for posterity.”