With the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, who attacked a would-be assassin with his cane after the man's pistol misfired, there has never been a cooler customer in the White House than President Barack Obama.
Under overcast skies, Mr. Obama, who is days away from a decision about ordering military strikes against Syria, stood on the same spot at the Lincoln Memorial that a radical peacemaker named Martin Luther King Jr. occupied 50 years ago when he delivered one of the most stirring speeches in American history.
As the nation's first African-American president, Mr. Obama had to know that comparisons to King would not be flattering in the very week he is contemplating a military strike against yet another Arab nation. Still, he did not flinch from what amounted to the ceremonial duties of his office on a significant national anniversary.
Though he could not lay claim to the totality of MLK's legacy with a straight face (even an adoring crowd could suffer major cognitive dissonance if the hypocrisy were blatant enough), Mr. Obama knew how to embrace the symbolism of the moment and did so quite skillfully.
The speakers at the 1963 rally in D.C. were a pragmatic and hard-headed bunch who weren't prone to sentimentality. Too many Americans had been beaten, arrested and killed, all while trying to get the country to live up to the promise of its creeds, for the speakers to dwell on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Where King and the other speakers on Aug. 28, 1963, pressed an agenda that ultimately challenged the powers that be, Mr. Obama delivered a speech that mostly lauded the foot soldiers and leaders of the civil rights movement. There was no attempt to advance either an economic or visionary agenda.
Though rhetorically impressive, it was a backward-looking speech that appealed to the crowd's lingering nostalgia for the marches and heroics of a generation ago.
Toward the end of his nearly 30 minutes, Mr. Obama even threw in a touch of the black preacher oratory he picked up in Chicago. If he loses his job as president and is forced to make a living as a preacher, he can drop his g's, quote scripture and drawl and elongate certain words like the best of them.
Still, as the nation wobbled on the knife's edge of another war in the Middle East, some in the crowd must have wondered what the slain civil rights leader would have really thought of the 44th president. It is a tantalizing question.
Were he alive, King would be 84 years old today. It is conceivable that he would have been willing to address the nation if he were in good enough health.
Even so, MLK would have said bluntly whether he considers Mr. Obama's tenure the culmination of the hopes and dreams he articulated on that humid day in August a half century ago, or a repudiation of those values because of the political expediency every president engages in.
King would have praised the Affordable Care Act, but he would have scolded the president over his mania for government secrecy and his shameful extension of his predecessor's surveillance state.
While he was on a roll, he would've addressed the cynical carpetbaggers on the right who have laid claim to his legacy even while opposing everything he ever stood for. He would have laughed at their opportunism and scorned their disingenuousness.
King would have also had a few choice words about the lack of will and leadership in Washington to accomplish big and necessary things. With unquestioned moral authority, he would have addressed the state of race relations in general and the myriad problems within the nation's black communities.
King would have mostly used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of that march for freedom and jobs to advance a national agenda while he had the nation's attention.
He would have spoken boldly about disparities in wealth and income, the collapse of education in the cities, the corporate dominance of the political process, the demonization of immigrants and the nation's shameful incarceration rate. He would've expressed skepticism about the war on drugs and the nation's wars on foreign people. He would not have spared from scrutiny one of his favorite targets -- the Pentagon's seemingly unlimited budget.
Mr. Obama isn't the most double-minded president in American history, but he is one of the most successful at compartmentalizing so many things so ruthlessly. Too bad there's no one around with King's moral authority to challenge him to be as radical as he truly needs to be to save this country.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.