George Will's memorably withering assessment of President Obama's "gaseous rhetoric" in Copenhagen mysteriously avoided taking Mr. Obama to task for one formulation he used in the speech -- the "sacred trust." "To host athletes and visitors from every corner of the globe is a high honor and a great responsibility. And America is ready and eager to assume that sacred trust," the president said. If it sounds familiar, it should. Back in June, Mr. Obama said, "As a nation, we have a sacred trust with all those who wear the uniform: To always take care of them as they take care of us." Back then, he wasn't talking about Olympic uniforms, but American military uniforms. In March, Mr. Obama, or his speechwriters, reached deep for material for a speech commemorating the 160th anniversary of the Department of the Interior and came out with another sacred trust, this one environmental: "For you know, you know that our long-term prosperity depends upon the faithful stewardship of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that we sow. That's a sacred trust..." And in his big speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9 about health care, Mr. Obama said, "More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years. That's how Medicare was born. And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next."
Mr. Obama is probably approaching about the outer limit of the number of times he can refer to different things as sacred trusts and have people take him seriously as opposed to wondering why he doesn't find some other way to say that something is really important. It gets to the point of taking the Lord's name in vain. But it is not a tic unique to Mr. Obama. Back in the George W. Bush administration, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage referred to the alliance between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, known as ANZUS, as a "sacred trust." President George H.W. Bush, in his remarks signing the Clean Air Act amendments, spoke of the idea of "global stewardship, a sense that it is the Earth that endures and that all of us are simply holding a sacred trust left for future generation." He was echoing Morris Udall, echoing Theodore Roosevelt.
And the great communicator, President Reagan, worked the sacred trust phrase pretty threadbare himself, . So if Mr. Obama is using the phrase a lot, he is in good company. Reagan used the phrase to refer to the responsibility of parents and educators: "a sacred trust to help children learn about the world in which we live." He also used it to refer to the office of the presidency itself: "Having temporary custody of this office has been for me a sacred trust." He also used it to refer to the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament: "Today, Your Holiness, marks the beginning of the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. We pledge to do everything possible in these discussions, as in our individual initiatives for peace and arms reduction, to help bring a real, lasting peace throughout the world. To us, this is nothing less than a sacred trust." One could go on, but it's, well, unholy. It's something to keep an ear out for, though, this habit of politicians to dress up whatever their agenda is in the language of "sacred trust" as opposed to mere political or national priority. It's a way of trying to put things outside the realm of normal policy debate.