Donald Trump has a unique way of speaking and writing. But for a president his language is not unprecedented. Or not unpresidented.
In 2004, after considering the speech of all 42 different presidents until then (Grover Cleveland, you recall, was both the 22nd and 24th president), I found two qualities that we the people look for in the language of our presidents: They should be dignified -- but also down to earth.
Dignity came first. George Washington, who knew he was establishing the model for the presidency, needed above all to be dignified, because he represented the dignity and status of the new democratic United States of America. Civilized countries in the 18th century were still mostly governed by hereditary aristocrats and royalty, outstanding supposedly because of generations of good breeding. The United States audaciously organized itself on the radical premise that all men are created equal, and that leadership would depend on merit, not ancestry.
To demonstrate this, our president needed to appear equal to the crowned heads of Europe. Washington, of course, did just that, speaking and writing with force and dignity.
Washington was much on the minds of his immediate successors, who like him were cultivated and dignified. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and J.Q. Adams all followed with Washington’s ideal in mind. And all of them came from elite families, provided with education, travel, and experience in matters of state and government.
As late as 1828, nearly 40 years after Washington became president in 1789, someone writing about presidential styles would have made it clear that there was one essential quality for a president: dignity.
And then came Andrew Jackson. In contrast to his predecessors, he was born in a log cabin in the wilderness to dirt-poor Scotch-Irish immigrant parents. Most of his presidential predecessors had college educations, in a time when going to college was rare, but Jackson had only a year or two of formal education. Nevertheless, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans had learned to read and write and speak eloquently long before he became president. He continued the tradition of presidential dignity, but he added a second admirable trait -- he was down to earth.
He became president in 1829, defeating the most highly educated president of all, John Quincy Adams. The son of our second president had gone on diplomatic missions to countries as varied as France and Russia, had been a U.S. secretary of state, and was Boylston professor of rhetoric at Harvard while serving in the U.S. Senate.
Quincy’s partisans could scarcely believe Jackson would be a serious contender for the presidency. In newspapers, the Facebook of that time, they spread the fake news that Jackson could barely read and write. How could he, with such a hardscrabble background?
But the franchise was widening, and the 1828 election made it clear that Americans wanted a president who would be of the people, not above them. So Jackson was elected and then re-elected. For the rest of the 19th century, being born in a log cabin was such a positive quality that candidates rewrote their biographies to include it. It helped Abe Lincoln, of course, and he was the real thing. But William Henry Harrison, born to a distinguished Virginia family and college educated, would be portrayed as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate leading to his victory in 1840.
Nevertheless, Washington’s example of cultivation and dignity wasn’t eliminated. Jackson was after all a gentleman and well-spoken, like most of his successors, but now a candidate would have an additional advantage if he was down to earth. Down to earth but cultivated; cultivated but plainspoken: These have been our expectations, or at least our hopes, ever since. Notable examples of down to earth, unpretentious presidents include Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Barack Obama could be down to earth too, having both African-American vernacular and sojourns at Columbia and Harvard Law School.
So where does President Trump fit in? Obviously, his language is down to earth, way down, deeper than any president before him. His manner of down-to-earthiness is his own, molded by his use of Twitter. He is so successful at being down to earth that he makes little attempt to appear dignified or cultivated. That’s a break from the dignity we have expected from his 43 predecessors.
The current crowned heads of Europe, as well as their democratic leaders, are shocked at his coarseness. And his election shocked supporters of his Democratic opponent, just as Jackson’s election shocked Quincy’s partisans. In that way, though not in eloquence, he has more in common with Andrew Jackson than might appear at first glance.
Allan Metcalf is the author of Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush (2004).