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Opinion: Trump's White House, A Bully's Pulpit

President Trump speaks during a "Make America Great" rally in Missoula, Mont., on Oct. 18.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump speaks during a "Make America Great" rally in Missoula, Mont., on Oct. 18.

President Theodore Roosevelt coined a phrase when he told White House reporters, "I have such a bully pulpit!" He meant "bully" as it was then used to say "terrific," or "tremendous." President Roosevelt believed a president had a peerless national platform that could be used to enlighten and inspire a nation with words.

Think of Lincoln in his second inaugural address, telling North and South at the close of a war that had soaked America in blood, "With malice toward none, with charity for all."

Or President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, after civil rights marchers had been beaten by Alabama state troopers, telling Congress it wasn't just African-Americans, but "all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

Or President Reagan, looking over the divided city of Berlin in 1987, and saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

President Trump has been in office for almost two years, and has millions of supporters. But I wonder if even many of them believe the president has used his perch of high office to utter words that inspire.

He has presided over rallies that chant, "Lock her up!" The president tells this year's campaign rallies that those who have different ideas are on a "ruthless mission to ... demolish and destroy," "corrupt power-hungry globalists" who want "millions of illegal aliens to ... overwhelm our nation," and threaten "the safety of every single American."

And of course, he's called the press the "enemy of the people."

He's praised a congressman who assaulted a reporter, saying, "Any guy who can do a body slam, he is my type!"

Of course, some Democrats and other public figures have also used overheated rhetoric. But as Mr. Trump has said a number of times about critics, "I'm president and they're not."

It may turn out that nothing the president said set off the person who has been detained and is suspected of sending pipe bombs to several people who criticized President Trump.

But all Americans have heard the president utter falsehoods, fan phony fears and conspiracy theories and use words to assail, insult and demean, rather than console, encourage or heal. So often, the president has turned his national bully pulpit into a bully's pulpit.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.