The Washington Post and other Beltway publications have recently remarked with awe about President Bush's penchant for plain-speaking. The amazement is palpable: Bush praises "Christ" by name and condemns "evil" without doing a song-and-dance about needing to "take into account root causes of terrorist acts." Awesome -- or awful, depending on the politics of the observer.
Message to Beltway: This is how the best American leaders have talked. Their speech has been robust, direct and Bible-salted. We lost touch with that rich tradition during the talk-is-cheap Clinton years, but GWB has brought it all back in a way that would make predecessors like Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan smile broadly (in TR's case, very broadly).
Go back 170 years to 1832, when Jackson vetoed a bill to recharter the influence-peddling, economy-centralizing Second Bank of the United States. He wrote, "In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruit of superior industry, economy and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law." Even when the U.S. Senate censured him, Jackson held firm in his Bible-based understanding -- "I will not bow down to the golden calf" -- and eventually won.
In the late 19th century, Cleveland fought both political and theological liberalism, maintaining that "the Bible is good enough for me" and that "criticism, or explanations about authorship or origin," was irrelevant. He also argued that abandonment of the gold standard would lead to inflation and injure "the laborer or workingman, as he sees the money he has received for his toil shrink and shrivel in his hand."
Early in the 20th century, Thodore Roosevelt gave speeches and published articles with explicit titles such as "The Eighth and Ninth Commandments in Politics." He described how any kind of economic preferment because of political ties threatens obedience to "the commandment which, in forbidding theft, certainly by implication forbids the connivance at theft, or the failure to punish it." He insisted that government-mandated economic redistribution might be politically popular, but the leader who appealed to covetousness "is "an enemy of the very people he professes to befriend. ... To break the Tenth Commandment is no more moral now than it has been for the past 30 centuries."
Cynical observers like British writer John Morley found distasteful Roosevelt's combination of whirligig speaking style and Scriptural quotations; he called Roosevelt a combination of "St. Paul and St. Vitus." But Roosevelt insisted on clear and concrete applications of biblical commandments, and often noted: "The Eighth Commandment reads, 'Thou shall not steal.' It does not read, 'Thou shall not steal from the rich man.' It does not read, 'Thou shall not steal from the poor man.' It reads simply and plainly, 'Thou shall not steal.'"
Truman, of course, was plain speech personified, even threatening to punch in the face a music critic who assailed his daughter Margaret's singing. But his directness carried an important foreign policy punch. At a time when his predecessor as vice president, Henry Wallace, favored pandering to the Soviet Union's expansionist interests, Truman drew a line in both action and oratory, and prayed for the nation's safety.
Reagan was similar in his dealings with the evil empire. The moment that could have prolonged the Cold War came in 1986 at Reykjavik. Mikhail Gorbachev had publicly offered major reductions in offensive weapons, but at summit's end sprang a surprise: Reagan had to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan, seeing Gorbachev's attempt to mousetrap him, had enough faith in God's sovereignty to say simply: "The meeting is over. Let's go ... we're leaving." The Soviet Union could not afford to match the U.S. SDI's efforts, and Soviet leaders soon had to give up their position and their power.
Reagan was perhaps the 20th century's best exemplar of the power of biblical confidence combined with plain but powerful speech. It's early, but President Bush is setting a good standard for the 21st century.