Fathers Of Our Country: How U.S. Presidents Exercised Moral Leadership In Crisis NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia, about how presidents have exercised moral leadership in critical moments.
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Fathers Of Our Country: How U.S. Presidents Exercised Moral Leadership In Crisis

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Fathers Of Our Country: How U.S. Presidents Exercised Moral Leadership In Crisis

Fathers Of Our Country: How U.S. Presidents Exercised Moral Leadership In Crisis

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On Tuesday afternoon, three days after clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, President Trump took questions from reporters, and he insisted that both sides were to blame for the violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you putting what you're calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this. You had a group on one side, and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs. And it was vicious, and it was horrible.

SIEGEL: It was a departure from the usual remarks we hear from presidents, as our co-host Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Throughout our history, presidents have sought to demonstrate moral leadership in times of crisis. We take for granted that presidents will offer clarity and vision after an event like Charlottesville. But why? How far back does this go? We asked Barbara Perry. She's a presidential historian at the University of Virginia.

BARBARA PERRY: I have traced this back to the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln of course at the battlefield in 1863 to consecrate it. He ties us all to our common heritage. Now, we at that point are in a civil war, and the North and South are split apart. But he points to the fact that our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And so he's looking past the Civil War, and he's looking to bring us back together. And so to me, it is the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming but also uplifting and inspirational.

CORNISH: Another speech you've talked about is John F. Kennedy, June 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens.

CORNISH: And this was a televised address to the nation essentially responding to the famous incident where the Alabama National Guard had to be called in to help desegregate the education system after Governor Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse doors, so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.

PERRY: President Kennedy had tried to walk a fine line between the Southern segregationists in his own party in the South and the civil rights wing of the Democratic Party. He had of course seen what was happening at the University of Alabama, and he had seen the water cannons and the police dogs used against the young African-American peaceful protesters in the streets of Birmingham. And it pushed him over that line. And the new line was to declare that the crusade for civil rights was a moral crusade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.

PERRY: And so it is at that point then that he takes on the legislation to send to Congress that will become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

CORNISH: I want to fast forward to 2001. This is when President George W. Bush gives a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., right after the 9/11 attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.

PERRY: He rose to the occasion to calm the waters, to go to those who were of the same religion but certainly not of the same political persuasion as the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. And I think he should be given all credit for virtually no violence breaking out against American Muslims at that time and would also note...

CORNISH: And his language is very literal in terms of how he says he doesn't want people to be in fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That's not the America I know.

CORNISH: It's not some fancy, dressed-up speech. He basically says, this is how I want us to behave.

PERRY: Yes. He not only models the behavior, but he gives a roadmap for that behavior.

CORNISH: To your mind, what is the responsibility of a president in critical moments? Is it to soothe? Is it to challenge? Does there have to be a call to action?

PERRY: I think at the very least, there has to be a soothing and comforting component. And we call George Washington the father of our country, and we look to fathers. And someday we hope we'll have presidents that we consider the mothers of our country. But up to this point, we view them as fathers. We view them as the heads of our family.

The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend. And the studies show that from the ages of 5 and 6 years old, they know about presidents. And that's why it's so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.

CORNISH: I think about how difficult this is now in the last couple of years. President Barack Obama was known for his oratory and relied heavily on speeches with mixed results. I think the best-known one took place after the mass shooting in downtown Charleston, S.C. This was a shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: He's given us the chance where we've been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same.

CORNISH: This felt like a very churchlike setting. It was in an arena, but it still had the - a pastoral feel.

PERRY: It absolutely did. And I'll always remember watching and seeing the African-American clerics behind the president. And I think that that caused the President to feel very comfortable in that setting and to take on the cadence and the rhythms of African-American liturgy and prompted him to break into the hymn "Amazing Grace."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: (Singing) Amazing grace...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: (Singing) ...How sweet the sound.

CORNISH: Aren't there limits to rhetoric, though?

PERRY: I think there are limits. Of course there are limits to presidential power. I think of the - President Obama's speeches after the horrific shooting at Newtown in which he called for more severe gun control. And he was unable to get that passed through Congress. So the president is not always successful in the persuasion in terms of policy outcomes.

CORNISH: Have we also possibly reached a moment where we simply don't look to the presidency for that moral guidance?

PERRY: Well, we've certainly grown more skeptical about all government. And I should go back to President Kennedy. In that era, the Gallup polls that would ask, do you have faith and confidence in the federal government to do the right thing - three quarters of Americans would say yes. That figure has dropped to 25 percent and even lower. And sadly, I think it has been jaded particularly by the incumbent president.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that, though?

PERRY: The precedent that Donald Trump has set now I think unfortunately is not to set that moral course, to conflate two sides in an issue in which the - I think the vast majority of Americans, including members of his own party, are seeing the side of those fighting for justice and equality and liberty as being...

CORNISH: But that his supporters agree with him, right? So is this something to do with the idea of a president not feeling you have to unite beyond your own base?

PERRY: Well, when we talk about Trump's supporters, we're talking about the base of about 35 percent of the American people. So this is setting a precedent for the president siding with a one-third of the American people I think to the detriment of setting a moral tone for the majority of Americans who believe in equality and freedom and liberty.

CORNISH: Barbara Perry is director of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PERRY: It's my pleasure and honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREVOR LAWRENCE JR.'S "CORNERSTONE")

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