Politics and Public Opinion, The Presidency

Of presidents and duty

Image Credit: REUTERS

Image Credit: REUTERS

I have been examining the inaugural addresses of all the presidents to see how their description of the American project has changed over the years. In the course of this, I ran across an intriguing finding: Presidents don’t talk about their duty nearly as much as they used to. From Washington through McKinley, every single one of the twenty presidents who gave an inaugural address used duty or its plural, referring to it in relation to the duties imposed on him by the office in at least one of them. Among the eighteen presidents who have given inaugural addresses since McKinley, only five have done so. From Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration through Barack Obama’s second, only one president has used the word — George W. Bush in 2005. That’s sixty years of almost total silence about duty from our presidents as they began their terms of office.

I checked Google’s Ngram Viewer (a wonderful data toy you should check out if you aren’t familiar with it) and found that the use of duty in American English has declined since 1789, whereas the use of responsibility has gone up and the use of obligation has been steady for a long time. So maybe presidents are still talking about their duty, but using different words. I reexamined the inaugural addresses looking for responsibility and obligation along with duty (and their plurals). In all cases, I counted a use only if the president was referring to himself or to the office. But not much changed. Presidents have used responsibility or its plural forty times since Hoover used it to refer to his own responsibilities in 1929, but only Jimmy Carter used it in the same sense. Obligation was last used in that sense by FDR in 1937. Adding still more possibilities (“trust,” in the sense of a responsibility, “service”) didn’t change the overall picture: A decline in the use of such language, gradual in the nineteenth century and precipitous in the last half of the twentieth, even when usage is expressed per 1,000 words of inaugural text.

I’m not saying that presidents aren’t aware of their duty anymore. But the change in presidents’ presentation of self to the electorate is unmistakable, and it goes in a direction away from “I am a citizen like you, with the most profound duty to serve the Constitution, not my own personal vision of what the Nation needs.” I like that attitude in a president. I wish we had more of it.

And what were the lonely uses of duty and responsibility by Presidents George W. Bush and James Earl Carter, Jr.? Bush’s was to say that “My most solemn duty is to protect this Nation and its people from further attacks and emerging threats.” Carter’s was delicious: “You have given me a great responsibility — to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are.” Who else but Jimmy Carter could have listed first among his responsibilities “to stay close to you,” and when else but the seventies could he have said it? Bring on The Carpenters.

By way of comparison, here is an earlier president presenting himself to his countrymen:

[T]he magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.

His name? George Washington.

7 thoughts on “Of presidents and duty

  1. Would it not have been wonderful if W had said, in light of our recent Islamist attacks, we ought to stop all immigration for 5 years and stop all Muslim student immigration? Can you imagine what the MSM would yell? Well, Bob Beckel said it on Fox. Yep. Liberalism has been killing all Americans with their stupid domestic and international policies and now even Beckel wants an end to immigration for a period of time. I suggest the Pubs go with that and watch them hold the House and win the Senate in 2014. Any voter now wanting to vote for another liberal progressive socialist Dem in 2014 is simply putting America into jeopardy, violence, Islamist horrors, more Obamacare stupidity. If we lose our Republic, it will because of our PC views and idiocy in electing even more Obamas. Oh and note, W’s poll numbers are coming back. Obama’s are slipping and they should. He is the worse horror as a Prez we have ever had including Grant, Harding, Wilson.

  2. A national movie critic wrote an essay a number ofyears ago where he pointed out a fundamental change in movies that occurred during the turmoil of the 1960s. He said that prior to the 60s, the single overarching theme of movies was “do your duty”. He said that changed in the 60s and the theme of movies changed to “follow your heart”. I guess you could interpret the former to mean a responsbility to live up to societal standards while the latter would be to “do your own thing”. This makes a lot of sense as the 60s were the turnpoint where all that came before (i.e. the system) was rejected as racist, sexist, imperialistic, etc. and the new ethic was one of pursuing love and other vaguely defined goals…as long as they “felt” good.

    • Nicely put, JohnR22. The 60s also marked the turning point from a national credo of earned success to one of learned helplessness. While I hope that there will always be the opportunity to earn success in the US, our national center of gravity is sliding toward learned helplessness.

  3. It would seem that the word “Duty” is not used by some presidents because they either do not feel they have a duty to the people or they do not understand what that duty might be. For example, there is the current situation where Mr. Obama came up with the idea of the sequestration. When the sequestration was embraced by the Republicans, Mr. Obama became quite angry and predicted all types of dire consequences should the congress not reconsider the sequestration. When this turned out to be bluster, Mr. Obama embarked upon a new precedence of directing his administration to ensure the sequestration effects would consistent with those predicted by Mr. Obama. To demonstrate his desire to punish America, Mr. Obama made it clear that he would veto any bill passed by congress that would give government agencies the flexability to make the sequestration cuts less onerous. In this case, it is clear why Mr. Obama never uses the word “duty” with respoect to himself or his office. The reason is that he has no concept of what his duty to the American peple might be.

  4. I don’t think President Obama thinks he has any duties. Celebrities don’t have duties (the duties of worship belong to their subjects).

  5. Consider the media and the public mind. Once Presidential thoughts filtered out by letter, word of mouth, journal, and by reports of deeds. Latter by mass media first printed later broadcast. Now we have a sort of anarchic narrow-casting, with the perverse characteristic that most all the inlets of the pond are filled with their own self-validating creatures.

    Presidents communicate differently now as do journalists, scholars, and the rest of us. There isn’t much interchange between folks of different views that rises above invective. When I’m leaning in with invective myself, it tends to be when the channel is virtually unanimously of the other opinion and my excuse is to just rudely suggest they might be mistaken.

    I think there very much still is duty, both in the traditional sense and in a newer development, loyal witness to one’s world view. I often fell public action is only that witness-bearing, with no connection to any actual objective thing or action.

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