Trump Opts For Gravitas Of The Oval Office As He's In Need Of A Game-Changing Moment

Jan 8, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 5:19 am

When President Trump addresses the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night he will be sharing the space with more than a teleprompter and an array of TV cameras.

The room with the legendary shape will also be filled with ghosts. The spirit of every president in the television age will be alive in the memories of millions watching at home.

President Harry S. Truman speaks during a television address from the Oval Office in 1947.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

To some degree, that is the idea. When you address the nation from the iconic broadcast space all presidents have inhabited since Harry Truman, you amplify the sense of history in the making. You take the mantle, as some might say, of momentous decision-making.

That impression has survived through seven decades of speeches that sometimes soared but just as often clanked. It has survived even though more recent presidents have dialed back on the use of the Oval for TV, preferring the East Room or the grand Cross Hall connecting the East and West Wings.

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush used it for major international crises. Barack Obama spoke from the Oval only three times, the last time from a lectern that stood awkwardly in the middle of the room.

President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation in the Oval Office on Dec. 6, 2015. Obama sought to soothe a nation shaken by a terrorist attack in a California town.
Saul Loeb / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The gravitas of the Oval Office address has also endured the onslaught of successor media, especially the social media platforms that now absorb so much of our national attention.

It is rather surprising that a president so famously proud of his millions of Twitter followers would care about a 20th century tool such as this.

Yet the special notion that the entire nation is gathered at the same moment staring at the same image still carries a unique charge. It is hard to imagine Twitter, even Trump Twitter, packing quite the same wallop.

And no one can doubt, at this moment, the president's need for a game-changing moment regarding the unbuilt wall on the Mexico border and the partially shuttered government.

Harry Truman inaugurated the practice of talking to TV America from the White House in 1947, when few Americans even owned a TV. He was drawing on the tradition of radio broadcasts that Franklin D. Roosevelt had deployed so effectively in the Depression and war years. Reaching for some of that political magic, Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower, addressed the nation from the Oval no fewer than 21 times.

In our time, most Americans can still picture George W. Bush sitting at the Resolute Desk, flanked by the flags and family pictures, cataloging the losses of Sept. 11, 2001, and vowing righteous retribution to come.

President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation from the Oval Office regarding the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But Trump is also of that generation that keenly recalls Ronald Reagan mourning the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in January 1986. If you were not around then, you have almost certainly seen the video. Reagan's mastery of that text was so perfect that he never seemed to be quoting a speechwriter quoting a poet. (And he addressed the nation from the Oval a record 34 times.)

President Lyndon B. Johnson talks to the nation in a radio and television broadcast from his desk at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. The president concluded his address with the statement, "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination for another term as president."
Associated Press

Trump is also old enough to remember Lyndon B. Johnson giving the nation a shock in March 1968 by announcing he would not seek re-election as president. Or Richard Nixon, six years later, announcing he would resign rather than face possible impeachment and removal from office.

But even before those archival moments, the Oval Office TV address carried a special cachet. Much of that came from John F. Kennedy's somber, breathtaking announcement in October 1962 that the U.S. Navy was blockading Cuba to prevent the delivery of Soviet missiles to launch sites there. That was the moment when "televised Oval Office address" became a trigger for cardiac episodes.

During a televised speech in 1962, President John F. Kennedy announces the strategic blockade of Cuba by the U.S. fleet.
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Perhaps no Oval Office address has been as portentous since, but many have been hinges of history. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter referenced this in an interview on Breitbart News Tonight earlier this month, urging Trump to give such a speech on the wall-shutdown issue. And Monday evening, Coulter tweeted that this week's Oval Office address should be a "serious" one "explaining why a Wall is the only compassionate solution."

Trump has appeared to be influenced by Coulter before. But we should also remember that, for all his success using alternative means of political messaging, he remains a child of the TV age. Born in 1946, Trump's formative years would have occurred in the 1950s — an observation that may also shed some light on what Trump is alluding to when he says he wants to "Make America Great Again."

Whatever else one might say about it, that was an era when an address from the Oval Office carried with it the impact and gravity associated with great power and great respect. That was the era in which the president was an iconic father figure, Dwight Eisenhower to be precise, the leading American military hero of World War II and arguably the first TV president.

President Dwight Eisenhower reports to the nation on his goodwill journey through Latin America.
Bill Allen / AP

When Ike spoke to the nation he did it with a slightly pained air of importance and authority. The impression he left was of the resigned paterfamilias, the gray eminence who brought difficult news because someone had to do it.

That is a mode Trump might well seek to emulate when he faces the nation Tuesday night and appeals for funds for a southern border wall.

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Going all the way back to Harry Truman, presidents have used a televised Oval Office address to underline the seriousness of an issue. Take John F. Kennedy speaking on the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


JOHN F KENNEDY: The presence of these large, long-range and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.

SHAPIRO: Or here's Ronald Reagan speaking after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.


RONALD REAGAN: Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core over the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.

SHAPIRO: Many of these speeches have shaped history. And with President Trump's first Oval Office address tonight, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving is here. Hi, Ron.


SHAPIRO: So let's go back to the beginning. President Truman was the first in 1947, when not many people in the country even had television sets. What was he talking about?

ELVING: Even then, it was a way of signifying special seriousness. And in this case, he was talking about the famine conditions in Europe in the aftermath of World War II.


HARRY S TRUMAN: An essential requirement of lasting peace is the restoration of the countries of Western Europe as free, self-supporting democracies.

ELVING: Fewer than 1 home in 10 at the time had a television. And of course, there was a radio hook-up to take care of everyone else.

SHAPIRO: We also heard President Reagan there using the Oval Office address as a way to console the country, sort of the role of consoler in chief that presidents so often play. What other presidents have used the address in that way?

ELVING: George W. Bush was not the communicator Reagan was perhaps, but he had great sympathy in September of 2001 after those terror attacks that have weighed, ever since, so heavily on our foreign policy and our national life.


GEORGE W BUSH: Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.

SHAPIRO: Ron, what other ways have presidents used the Oval Office address?

ELVING: Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon announced their departures, if you want to put it that way, from the Oval Office, Johnson saying that he wouldn't run again that year.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

ELVING: And Nixon saying that he was about to resign that week.


RICHARD NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent every instinct in my body.

ELVING: And doing it from the Oval, as they did, had a kind of solemnity and finality, almost a legal sense of commitment about it.

SHAPIRO: Technology has changed so much and so quickly, it now seems that we are inundated with news, including news of the president. He can speak to the public directly through Twitter and other channels. Does an Oval Office address carry the same kind of weight for President Trump that it might have for earlier presidents? Why would he choose this medium?

ELVING: It's a bit surprising. He is such a creature of the social media platforms, as you say. It just seems quaint to see him in a setting so associated with the nation's past.

But because of that, because of the ghosts in this space, if you will, the White House hopes that this rather jarring image and this association of Trump with these past presidents will help accentuate the sense of crisis about the border that the president is trying to convey.

SHAPIRO: Does an Oval Office address carry the weight and gravitas that it used to? I mean, when I was a White House correspondent covering the Obama administration and you were my editor, Obama only delivered three Oval Office addresses in his eight years. More often, he would speak from the East Room or the Grand Cross Hall that connects the East and West Wings of the White House. He used that venue when he announced the death of Osama bin Laden.

ELVING: That's right. Obama never seemed to get comfortable with the desk shot. And indeed, he had the same kind of relationship to speaking that Donald Trump has, that assumption that if there's a big audience, you ought to be doing something other than sitting down.

SHAPIRO: NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.