NDIANAPOLIS—Sometimes, a simple pronoun can tell a whole story.
Years ago, Harvey Jacobs gave me a useful piece of advice. Harvey was the longtime opinion editor for The Indianapolis News and my mentor.
He told me always to start a job letter application with the pronoun “you” rather than “I.”
“That one little world tells the people hiring that you’re interested in helping them—that you’ve taken the time to think about and consider what they need,” Harvey instructed. “That makes you the sort of person any enterprise would want to have working for it.”
I thought about Harvey’s counsel when I watched President Joe Biden’s speech marking the first anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic. In it, Biden detailed key features of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package he’d just signed and laid out a timetable for Americans to be vaccinated so they could begin resuming normal life again.
Biden’s address made for a welcome change.
The pronouns were at least one reason.
Speeches and remarks by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump featured long marches of the first-person singular. Delivered in bombastic tones, his self-congratulatory pronouncements advanced to assault the senses.
“I alone can fix it.”
“I think I know more about the environment than most people.”
“I have a great relationship with African Americans, as you possibly have heard. I just have great respect for them. And they like me. I like them.”
Biden’s speech was different.
To be sure, “I” found its way into the text here and there. Generally, the president used it to emphasize something he had done in his role as the nation’s chief executive or to show he grasped and appreciated the struggles of suffering Americans at a personal level.
“You know, you have often heard me say before, I talk about the longest walk any parent can make is up a short flight of stairs to his child’s bedroom to say, I’m sorry, but I lost my job; I can’t be here anymore, like my dad told me when he lost his job in Scranton,” Biden said.
In that case, the first-person singular was pressed into service not to demonstrate the new president’s self-proclaimed prowess but his vulnerability. He used the “I” as an act of empathy. He didn’t do so to assert mastery but to form a connection with his listeners, one rooted in a shared experience of suffering.
But even in that way, Biden’s use of the first-person singular pronoun was sparing, overwhelmed by his generous sprinklings of the words “we,” “us” and “you.” He kept the focus not on what he had done—or how he had been treated—but instead on what the country needs.
What the American people need and what they are experiencing.
“But in the loss, we saw how much there was to gain in appreciation, respect and gratitude. Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do,” the president said.
“In fact, it may be the most American thing we do. And that’s what we have done. We have seen front-line and essential workers risking their lives, sometimes losing them, to save and help others, researchers and scientists racing for a vaccine, and so many of you, as Hemingway wrote, being strong in all the broken places.”
There is more than rhetorical significance to Biden’s use of pronouns.
Republican attacks on his leadership during these early days of his presidency have been ineffective because they misunderstand this moment in America’s history and how Americans feel about it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, responded to the passage of the pandemic relief measure by arguing Biden and his fellow Democrats couldn’t take credit for any economic recovery coming.
Trump reacted by claiming he was responsible for the vaccines inoculating 2 million Americans per day.
Biden seems to realize most Americans care less about whether a Republican or Democrat solves the problem or helps them than that the solution is found and they receive the help they need. They yearn to know that, in this time of immense shared suffering, we face common difficulties together.
They want to be a “we,” an “us.”
Not one disconnected I after another.
Harvey Jacobs was right.
Sometimes, a simple pronoun can tell a whole story.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students