“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.’ “ —Ronald Reagan, Jan. 28, 1986.
“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America.” — George W. Bush, Sept. 11, 2001.
“Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.” — Barack Obama, Dec. 16, 2012.
“So I appreciate your support and I know you appreciate our support, because our country has really gone all out to help. And it’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive, it’s everything. But I consider it a great honor, maybe because I know so many people from Puerto Rico that are such great people.” — Donald Trump, Oct 3, 2017.
Some words about words.
Once upon a time, presidents used them as a tool to lift us up when we had been battered down. When tragedy struck or terrorists hit, when massacre came or the storm swamped our lives, they gave us words that inspired, that pointed the way up the rugged incline toward hope.
Nor was it just in sorrow that they did this. In celebration and commemoration, too, we learned to wait to hear what the president had to say.
But that was then.
Of all the ways Donald Trump has damaged this country, arguably the most subtle yet insidious is that he’s taught us not to expect the chief executive to say anything of value. It is not just that he is ineloquent, though he is. But then, George W. Bush was hardly known for rhetorical finesse.
No, Trump’s problem is that he has nothing to say. And the more he says, the more obvious that becomes.
He is the proverbial empty vessel making the most noise. Asked to empathize or analyze, he throws out a confetti of words, verbal chaff that distracts but says nothing. When cornered, he tries to hide his emptiness behind a veneer of inscrutability meant to sound like confidence.
Last week, for instance, came frightening news of North Korea’s latest missile launch. Not to worry, said Trump. “This situation will be handled.”
Meaning what, exactly?
Meaning nothing, that’s what.
“I’m very highly educated,” Trump once bragged. “I know words. I know the best words.” Actually, he seems to know maybe a few hundred words, most of them self-congratulatory superlatives, schoolyard insults and primary-colors emotions: biggest, best, loser, bad, sad.
As language, it is dishwater. One can’t help but look back with longing on Obama’s polish, Reagan’s folksiness, even Bush’s malapropisms. Politics aside, they understood that a president’s words must speak to something noble in us, remind us of what it is we’re trying to be.
That knowing recedes a little more every time Trump opens his mouth. Every time he speaks, our expectations of the presidency are diminished, perhaps irretrievably.
And that’s a sorrow for which there are, ironically enough, no words.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.