There is an absolute requirement for a British prime minister that eludes presidents of the U.S. Periodically, the prime minister, who is not directly elected (but is the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons), must stand before parliament. This is a group that habitually gets a lot more rowdy than anything in Washington.
The prime minister doesn’t get a special podium, but sits in the front row of a bench. He must periodically submit to “Question Time,” where he gets a grilling from back-benchers from all parties.
The PM is expected to deliver a performance far above anything you’d see from an American president. He must be able to stand up in an instant, ad-libbing a defense for the policies of his government.
The only recent American presidents capable of doing what is so routine in the U.K. would be perhaps Barack Obama (who once spoke at a session of parliament) and Bill Clinton.
What is missing from the U.S. presidency is the sense of accountability that comes from having to perform not just the same as, but better, than the average back-bencher. In other words, he or she must be able to think on his feet — a notch above speaking and chewing gum at the same time.
Boris Johnson, the current prime minister, is a good example of a Brit who can deliver a good performance without saying anything memorable. Recently installed in his position, he is still learning.
There’s something to be said for having to demonstrate a little mental aptitude for the job. The best we Yanks can do is field someone capable of delivering an entirely canned address written by a flock of speechwriters whose job it is to protect the president from himself.
Some dramatic abilities (dramatic does not include melodramatic) should be required from any American running for the White House. There’s a certain discipline that comes from the type of preparation that actors are routinely expected to bring to the stage. Why should we accept anything less from would-be leaders?
The current incumbent, Donald Trump, will say he’s an accomplished reality actor. That’s true, and it’s to his credit. But it does not save him from speaking the kind of drivel and nonsense that wouldn’t reach first base in Hollywood. The presidency is a performance art form that requires practice, rehearsal and auditions.
It’s no accident that ad-libbing severely harms many politicians. They believe they can get up and make it happen. Most can’t, though many pick it up through speechwriters who pose as questioners at mock press conferences. It’s odd that so many American politicians can get up and pretend to speak well. If they score, it’s only by accident.
The only recent American leader who mastered performance was Ronald Reagan. He received varying grades as president, but was rarely marked down on his ability to communicate. Reagan could leave viewers with a warm, fuzzy feeling about his personality even when they doubted his policies and advisors.
The Bushes (numbers 41 and 43) had that down-to-earth feel about them, but would have done much better with the type of dramatic training that would have given observers the notion that they knew what they were talking about 100% of the time.
The junior Bush actually took a course in school called “The History and Practice of American Oratory,” taught by a history professor. One of the main course requirements was the preparation of a speech that had a structure once commonplace in Congress. He didn’t necessarily show it. But elements of “showtime,” properly learned, can stick.
We can’t rewrite the Constitution to require such preparation, but Trump has shown us the harm that an unprepared politician can inflict on himself when routinely unprepared at press conferences. Such lack of discipline is an embarrassment to voters who expected more.
We have few current actors in office but we need more candidates steeped in dramatic skills. When they deliver a good address, it should be more than just an accident.
We might get lucky if we can land a singer. Then, when times get rough, he or she could take a timeout for a couple of minutes of show and tell.
It’s time we land some politicians who give us the idea that a well-manicured talk is more than just a crapshoot.