We often measure a president's caliber not by his actions but by his rhetoric. A president must be well-spoken if he desires to be president, and he must continue to utilize language with expertise should he wish to remain president. For we as Americans are often too lazy to evaluate a president's policies unless we are directly affected (see this post on philosophical discussions and shared experience) and thus pay great attention to the president's linguistic mastery in speeches and statements.
What the president says usually falls under two categories - what the public wants to hear, and what the public needs to hear. Most of the time, the president should to stick to the former, because appeasing the public is a major part of his job description. General statements - "We must improve our government!" ; "America is the greatest nation in the world!" - demonstrate the ease with which the public may be satisfied.
It is the latter - the saying of what the public needs to hear - that is so difficult that presidents often neglect to do so; when this is required, many presidents will simply revert to the crowd-pleasing orations that inspire mindless cheering and boosted morale - "We must improve our government!" ; "America is the greatest nation in the world!"
But once in a while, a president (or his speechwriter) will say something that isn't trash. And these words are the ones that stand up to time, the ones that are so anthologized and retweeted. These are the words that provide perspective into a specific time period and mindset. Sometimes, they even allow a glimpse into a president's personality. And these words almost always were what the public needed to hear.
Joslyn Pine edited a nice little anthology of quirky and revelatory presidential quotes, Presidential Wit & Wisdom. Here are some of the selections from the first five American presidents, the Founding Fathers and the Virginia Dynasty. These pieces of rhetoric often are just generic aphorisms, witty but unremarkable observations. However, a president's use of platitudes is often warranted - after all, a speech's potency depends upon shared experience (again, see this post on philosophical discussions and shared experience). And one must remember that cliches are cliches for a reason. A good reason, usually.
George Washington: "Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder."
John Adams: "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket."
Thomas Jefferson: "It is our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read."
James Madison: "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind, and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
James Monroe: "The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money."
Look for a rhetorical analysis of presidential speeches this week! What fun!