Kennedy had a rare sense of the bully pulpit, neither undervaluing it nor overestimating its power. On one hand, JFK was "deeply—excessively—skeptical about the value of speeches per se," my father, aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote in his diary at the time. Kennedy understood that talk alone cannot itself bend history. But he also understood that given the proper context, a speech can catalyze a moment and help shape events, as with his three great addresses from June 1963: the American University speech on world peace, his civil rights address to the nation the following day, and his stirring talk at the Berlin Wall.
It's a lesson that Barack Obama needs to absorb as his presidency shifts to a more exhortative stage, with an obstinate GOP controlling the House. He seems to have taken too much to heart Mario Cuomo's aphorism that we campaign in poetry but govern in prose (which Hillary Clinton used against Obama during the 2008 primaries). In fact, governing sometimes requires poetry, speaking not simply to the head as Obama does with such professorial skill, but to the heart or the gut. As the president is unhappily having to demonstrate today, the bully pulpit must sometimes be used to express national outrage and national grief—drama, in other words, from a chief executive who prides himself on being "no drama."