Guest Columnist: Oma Djebah

By Oma Djebah

United States President Donald Trump’s alleged racial slurs against Nigerians and Haitians which was treated to a screaming headline by the New York Times has expectedly opened the Pandora’s box. Despite the yelling, prompt and impressive rebuttal from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who in my opinion, has done an admirably excellent job as under Trump Presidency, the purported misinformation has taken the lid off a number of issues bordering on Presidential slips. Hence the denial has generally been taken with disbelief, no matter how well intentioned. That has hardly died down, then came Trump’s alleged remarks about “immigrants from shitholes”. And then his preference for Norway! Contextually, as a SIDA Scholar at the Universities of Orebro (Sweden) and Oslo (Norway) almost two decades ago, I do know that both countries as top grade nations are miles ahead in terms of free healthcare, free education, high standard of living, among others and her citizens hardly immigrate from the Scandinavia. In most cases, it’s the reverse!

Back to basics. According to policy experts, Trump’s communication style has reduced the elegance of presidential communication to Twitter! Consequently, to appraise the position of the current US President on key policy issues, as indeed with any other matter of state, you just simply need to check Twitter. To illustrate this communication technique, let’s take the case of Trump’s response to rogue North Korea’s increasing threat and her debauchee dictator, Kim Jong-Un. In series of tweets in the wake of North Korea’s September 3 underground nuclear test, Trump had reacted that if North Korea threatened the US or its allies, the US would have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” threatening ”fire and furry” against” rocket man.” Sadly, this rogue dictator called Jong-Un, hasn’t stopped nor de-escalated the growing tension and his country’s threat to global peace.

While one certainly admires Trump’s tenacity, conviction and nerve to say things temerariously, that unfortunately doesn’t add up in today’s World of diplomacy and professional polish. For example, his customary tweets tend to undermine his own Secretary of State-Rex Tillerson, whose pragmatic position on the same subject is that the US should stick to its policy of rallying its allies to apply economic pressures and sanctions on North Korea which should be backed with a threat of military action.
This boils down to communications role which Trump hasn’t accorded high priority. His frequent tweets tend to contradict his Press Secretary’s excellent and most professional media briefings. He needs to grasp the fact that the ability of a president to communicate skilfully is an important component of that office. Presidents the world all over realize that their overall performance rests as much on what they say and how they say it, as what they do.

Most of Trump’s predecessors-whether Democrats or Republicans- are known for admirable and first- class speeches that exemplify their communication skills. Three speeches stand out. On June 26, 1963 President John F Kennedy made his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin in then divided Germany: “ All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner..”. If Kennedy’s Speech in West Berlin is internationally famous as a symbolic commitment to freedom, there was an equally important one that outlined US ambition in space race. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon. In his speech appropriately titled “Urgent National Needs”, Kennedy said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth”. In 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong fulfilled Kennedy’s dream. Kennedy had made it clear in his speech that he had been moved to act by the surprise launching in October 1957 of Sputnik (Satellite in Space) by the Soviet Union. The launching of Sputnik by Soviet Union, now referred to in US public policy discourse as Sputnik moment, had a transforming effect on US scientific research and development, in general, and space technology, in particular

Twenty four years after President Kennedy’s Berlin Speech, on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made his famous “Tear down the Wall” address which was most impactful globally. Reagan had said: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Predictably, on November 9, 1989, Eastern Germans decreed free passage for all into West Germany. And by 1990, the Wall finally came down, signaling the triumph of liberalization and market forces. Both great leaders came on board with clear and noble vision which they communicated with elegance, poise, tact and sophistication.

The question then arises as to how President Trump should organize for this crucial task of communication? In most modern presidencies, the task of communication lies heavily on two persons-the press secretary and the Director of communications. The Director of Communications is the President’s “chief wordsmith”, while his Press Secretary is his “chief spokesman”. The Director of communications writes or vets all speeches and statements of the President and cabinet members. Under Kennedy, his Press Secretary was Pierre Sallinger, while his Director of communications was Theodore Sorenson, who passed away some years back. During the Reagan Presidency, his Press Secretary was Larry Speakes, while his communications Director was Peggy Noonan. Sorenson and Noonan penned the awesome, breathtaking and memorable speeches of Kennedy and Reagan, respectively.

But for President Trump who appears to communicate policy decisions via conventional tweets, it’s most difficult, if not impossible, to vet such pronouncements by his Director of Communications! Worse still, statements emanating from his habitual tweets often tend to contradict his own press secretary’s media briefings. In matters of communications, there is often the question of whether the elegance of prose matches action. Without a compelling vision, there can be no profound speeches because there is nothing to sell! And vision is intrinsically linked to what a leader wants his or her legacy to be.

In this context, it is quite easy to argue that the reason President Trump has not had stunning, spectacular speeches that radiate populist chord among the vast majority is because he hasn’t probably allowed either his Director of Communications to professionally vet his tweets or speeches. Above all, he needs to accord high priority to communications role. To hark back to President Kennedy’s address of 1961, when was the last time President Trump addressed the US on “Urgent National Needs”?

Djebah, a global journalist, public policy analyst, former Delta State Commissioner for Information and founder of The New Diplomat, holds advanced degrees in Global Journalism and International Law and Diplomacy and is on the Visiting Scholar Program at Johns Hopkins University, USA. email:djebahoma337@gmail.com