To historians, Obama pledged to ’speak less often’ in future 

The historian Garry Wills has written a brief item for the New York Review of Books blog about a dinner with President Obama on June 30, 2009.  In that dinner with Wills, eight other historians, and three White House staffers, Obama was seeking to learn, in Wills’ words, “what history could teach him about conducting the presidency.”

Wills says he offered Obama some simple advice on public speaking: Do less of it.  “I told him that Richard Nixon had advised Ronald Reagan not to make too many public statements himself — let others speak on a daily basis, and save his appearances for big issues,” Wills writes.  “Obama replied that he would speak less often in the future, but at the moment no one else in his administration could command the attention that he did.”

That was more than a year ago, and the pace of Obama’s frequent public statements has not let up.  In January of this year, when Obama marked his first year in office, CBS’s Mark Knoller, who serves as the unofficial media record-keeper at the White House, noted that Obama made 411 speeches, comments and remarks in the first year; held 42 question-and-answer sessions with reporters, gave 158 interviews, and held 23 town-hall meetings.

The historians’ White House dinner was off the record at the time, an agreement Wills observed because he hoped it would lead to more sessions in the future.  But that did not happen, and Wills says there is “no sign that [Obama] learned anything from it.”  So Wills decided to write his memories of the session.

The most important part of the dinner, in Wills’ telling, was that at least half the historians told Obama that “pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson.”  In Wills’ estimation, Obama didn’t listen to that advice, either.  “He replied that he was not naïve about the difficulties,” Wills writes, “but he thought a realistic solution could be reached.”  (Wills adds that at that moment he thought about interjecting “when pigs fly,” but decided to remain silent.)

Still, it appears Obama has incorporated Wills’ and the historians’ advice in one way: While he still speaks a lot in public, he doesn’t speak a lot about Afghanistan.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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