December 3rd, 2008
In recent years, the term “bully pulpit” has erroneously become conflated with the modern meaning of the word bully, someone who harasses or intimidates. As such, people see the term as pejorative, an indication that someone is abusing power. This is more than wrong, it is unfortunate, as a look at history and the true meaning of bully pulpit will show. The term bully pulpit was coined by Theodore Roosevelt. As anyone who has seen Arsenic and Old Lace can attest, President Theodore Roosevelt was fond of the word bully, not the modern day noun, but the turn of the century interjection meaning “Well done!” or “Excellent!”. When he coined the phrase, he was describing the excellent opportunity the American Presidency offered to advance a political agenda. Not to intimidate people into submission, but to advocate a good cause that otherwise might not rise to public attention. The bully pulpit provided an opportunity to do good. The association of the term bully pulpit with the noun bully diminishes the the ability of the President to use this power; as often such uses are cast in term of left/right politics or political opportunism. It’s time to take the term back and ensure the connotation of the term is positive rather than negative.
The concurrent ascendancy of Web 2.0 technologies and President-elect Obama provide an opportunity to update the term while returning it to its true meaning. Through the Change.gov web site, the transition team is posting its press conferences, weekly “radio” addresses, and other transition information on YouTube. In other words, the bully pulpit has become the bully YouTube. While many of the topics presented on Change.gov are front and center in the minds of most Americans, one of interest to me has not been: Creative Commons. While YouTube does not support Creative Commons licensing at present and until recently the content on Change.gov was not under a CC license, it appears the Obama-Biden transition team has done the right thing and put the content of Change.gov under a CC Attribution license. Bully!