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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.