The president provided a publicized address last night, then went off the air. As such, the bigfoot reviews aren’t in yet. But most journos have never written a speech for a politician. I have, dozens of them. Produced my share of political media as well. Now there have been much worse showings than what we saw tonight, and I say that as a supporter of the president. But there have been much better, including when the president wings it.
From the beginning, the president was looking in the wrong camera. Off to his left instead of in front of him. The backdrop wasn’t bad: the usual flags, pictures of his mom and dad, and military and police unit coins.
The biggest problem of all, starting right from the gitgo, is that he was reading off of a teleprompter. For a natural entertainer like Trump, talking at people, instead of his usual practice of talking to them, came off as stiff and unnatural. He also used “ay” instead of the more natural “uh” when saying “a,” thus sounding like a 1950s-era space robot.
Whoever wrote that speech has not found the president’s voice yet. Sure doesn’t sound like Stephen Miller, who has done well for the president in the past. It’s not an easy thing, finding that voice. Few achieve it well. Ted Sorenson found Jack Kennedy’s voice because he had always been that voice, even to the point of ghostwriting all of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Though in accepting it and basking in the media spotlight as an accomplished writer, as has been said about the New England Dem, JFK showed more profile than courage.
Peggy Noonan had the very difficult job of finding the voice for Bush the elder. As she had pulled it off for the Gipper in the Pointe du Hoc speech, she also pulled it off for Poppy at the GOP convention of 1988, my over thirty-year crush on her notwithstanding.
Kennedy’s/Sorenson’s style was very Churchillian. You can hear it well in the cadence, phrasing, and style of the Cuban Missile Crisis speech. It was a masterly example of dramatic timing and a call for action. Churchill’s style was derived from his love of Macaulay and Gibbon and he knew how to build suspense towards a powerful ending. That was wholly missing from the president’s speech. I know I kept waiting for something new, dramatic, powerful. But got, bupkis. The speech just sat there and floundered like a carp on a deck gasping for air. At the end, the speech weakly gave up the fight and crept off stage. Dare we say it, “Low Energy Don”?
Trump is better than that.
The president thrives off the high energy and response of crowds, and they surely love him. This would have been better delivered from a podium in front of a friendly audience. The president also is usually very expressive with his hands. This format stifled that and he seemed almost cranky about it.
The spin was solid. Turn it into a humanitarian crisis and combine that with an anti-crime message. Problem was he has said it many times before. It was not new and added zilch, a nothingburger. Oval Office presidential addresses in prime time deserve better than a restatement of the talking points of the last two weeks. Redundancy is not eloquence.
Whoever wrote this speech has not grasped the fact that President Trump is not a sinecurist politician so you can’t write for him as you would for one of that species. Rich phrasing leaves out his best oratorical tricks like withering sarcasm, mockery, repetition for emphasis, and well-timed off-the-cuff jokes. The guy is such a natural, but in an extemporaneous sense. Try to corral him into pompous bloviating and he comes off so two-dimensional you can lick the back of his head and stick him on the wall. Like, tonight.
Now, on fast-moving events like this I usually put a tease on my Facebook page to see the reaction. You, dear readers, have been saved from many a boring or wacky topic from me by the good sense of certain Facebook pals. This time, most agreed with my stance. However, there was one guy, quite entitled to his opinion, who immediately took umbrage and implied that we were siding with Chuck and Nancy in criticizing the president’s speech tonight. Now while I’ve certainly gotten into trouble, even blazing arguments, siding with Sid and Nancy, Chuck and Nancy leave me cold. I didn’t even watch their response. Others with more ecumenical temperaments will cover it just fine. As the gent who accused me of the heinous act should be reminded, Trump supporters are not bloody robots. Cogent constructive criticism does not amount to apostasy.
I understand that there has to be steak and not only sizzle in a presidential address. The president delivered that. Evoking the murdered police Corporal Singh and other victims of illegal alien violence was a good move. But it was delivered so stale that it lost the tremendous emotional punch it should have had. The whole speech was like that. A very good press release on the president’s view on the issue and not much more. It should have been issued as such.
The advance work was bad too. Rumors of national emergency and other dramatic gambits filled the airwaves and social media. With the foreknowledge the speech did not contain any of it, White House spinners should have been out in force denying that and generally downplaying expectations. In politics, that’s usually a winning stratagem: If you downplay and there is nothing there then nobody gets disappointed. If you downplay and there is a big thing there, then everybody gets a hell of a surprise and the excitement and exposure is significantly increased. How the White House pros did not know this is bizarre. It is literally political media 101 and redolent of Pascal’s Wager.
Whatever the cause and the blame, it’s over now, aside from reviews like this. It’s a minor unforced error that will be forgotten soon. The Dems will give him bad reviews, as will the Vichy Republicans, and claim catastrophe. But they would have done so no matter what he said or how he said it.
The presidency is, in the words of TR, “a bully pulpit.” The genesis of support for Trump and his policies emanate from that pulpit. No doubt, with the reviews from this venture clearing his thoughts on the matter and his great gifts as a communicator, next time he’ll hit it out of the park.