Bully Pulpits and Pulpit Bullies

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Theodore Roosevelt

Bully is a word that has taken a beating in recent times. Look for its derivative bullying on the Internet and you’ll find a government-sponsored website called The site explains that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”

The site includes recommendations on how to respond to bullying, and how to prevent it in the first place. As it should be.

But a century ago, and more, bully had another quite different meaning. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang shows the noun bully meaning “a good fellow, comrade” going as far back as the 1600s, and the adjective “bully” meaning “very fine, splendid, excellent” going back equally far. “Emerson called upon me immediately,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1860. “Gave me a bully dinner.”

So it is not entirely surprising that a little over a century ago there was an outspoken presidential candidate whose favorite word of approbation was bully. Theodore Roosevelt, of course.

Here’s an example, from Recollections of Thirteen Presidents, by John S. Wise:

President Roosevelt “invited me to go with him to his office and examine some new German rifles. On arriving there we found some very obsequious Germans who, after profound bows, showed their weapons. The President was much pleased with the mechanism of the guns and, seizing one, worked it, threw it up to his shoulder, pointed it out of the window, clicked it, tested it, and finally, with the enthusiasm of a boy, passed it over to me for examination, exclaiming, ‘By George! Look at it! Ain’t that bully?’ I wondered whether the Germans had ever heard their Kaiser talking about bully things.”

And though Teddy didn’t invent this meaning of bully, he did invent the bully pulpit. Here’s the story of how that came about, according to a contemporary account by Lyman Abbott in 1909:

“Half a dozen of us were with the President in his library. He was sitting at his desk reading to us his forthcoming Message. He had just finished a paragraph of distinctly ethical character, when he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair, and said; ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”

In other words, he had noticed that by virtue of being president (or even a presidential candidate), anything he chose to say would be listened to.

(You can find more about Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant use of the bully pulpit in my 2004 book, Presidential Voices.)

That brings us to last week. The presidential candidate Hillary Clinton combined the old and new meanings of bully in a speech to the Service Employees International Union:

“We need a president who will use the bully pulpit to stand up for working families. But the last thing we need is a bully in the pulpit.”

Donald Trump (like Hillary) has indeed found that the current presidential campaign offers him a bully pulpit. And remarks indeed often fit the definition of “unwanted, aggressive behavior.”

But that leaves us with the question: If bullying is so universally condemned nowadays, and if the Donald practices it so often in his campaign, why has his bullying been so successful?

I’ll leave that answer to the psychologists and politicians.



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