Trump Opts For Gravitas Of The Oval Office As He's In Need Of A Game-Changing Moment In the third week of the shutdown, President Trump will give a national address about the unbuilt wall on the Mexico border and the partially shuttered government.
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Trump Opts For Gravitas Of The Oval Office As He's In Need Of A Game-Changing Moment

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

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

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

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.

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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.

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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.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Ari.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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