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Presidents' speeches announcing the death of an enemy can reveal a lot, experts say


Last week President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. For many Americans, the moment may have felt familiar. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump made similar announcements during their tenure. Aside from the political and foreign policy implications, scholars and historians that spoke to NPR say these speeches can reveal a lot more. NPR's Jaclyn Diaz has more.

JACLYN DIAZ, BYLINE: In 2011, then-President Barack Obama took center stage at the White House and told the rapt American audience...


BARACK OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

DIAZ: And in 2019, then-President Donald Trump announced...


DONALD TRUMP: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.

DIAZ: Each expert that spoke to NPR agreed Obama's speech on the death of Osama bin Laden was momentous. They said Obama was able to meet that moment with a solemn tone and a deliberate delivery. Biden mirrored that tone in his speech.


OBAMA: A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

DIAZ: Thomas Schwartz, a professor at Vanderbilt University, says...

THOMAS SCHWARTZ: There's no question that, watching Obama, you got reminded of how deliberative and almost academic his style could be in discussing things.

DIAZ: Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, says Biden and Obama were careful with their tone and the details they provide, likely in a way to try to elevate the news they're sharing.

JENNIFER MERCIECA: You have very somber speeches delivered by Obama and Biden using, you know, sort of the official office of the president to talk about, you know, justice, to talk about what is owed and due to the victims of 9/11.

DIAZ: Trump did the opposite.


TRUMP: He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.

DIAZ: Mercieca said that flair was just how Trump rolled throughout his presidency.

MERCIECA: So one of the things that was very noteworthy about Trump's presidential rhetoric was that he claimed to not want to use it. He said that he didn't want to be presidential. He thought that presidential was boring and lame.

DIAZ: Jaclyn Diaz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.

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