During Richard Nixon’s years as a slashingly anti-Communist U.S. senator and vice president, The Washington Post’s famed cartoonist Herblock (Herbert Block) was a relentless critic. His trademark was portraying Nixon with a heavier and heavier five o’clock shadow, caricaturing him as a thug.
Then in 1968, when Nixon returned to Washington as president, Herblock drew a famous cartoon saying in effect, “every new president deserves a clean shave” and began presenting a better-looking Nixon (for a while).
I decided to approach Donald Trump’s speech tonight to Congress in the “clean shave” spirit. During the campaign I was not an admirer. I thought his inaugural address was unique among such speeches in its dark divisiveness, and since the inauguration I’ve considered his actions more abrasive than even I had foreseen.
But suppose I didn’t know or think any of that. Suppose I was listening to this as just another of the presidential addresses to Congress I’ve heard over the years (and for many years annotated here for The Atlantic, for instance going back to this one by President George W. Bush in 2003, through these by President Obama in 2012 and 2014).
Of course it’s impossible to forget what we’ve learned about Trump over these past 18 months. But I tried my best to watch this speech with new eyes. And at the end of the exercise I thought that the speech would simultaneously seem less impressive, more impressive, and, in a particular way, shocking if we set aside what we already know about Donald Trump. Here goes:
Less Impressive: From a rhetorical perspective, State of the Union addresses are necessary evils, as I’ve tried to explain over the years. Structurally and stylistically they are inevitably cumbersome, since every part of the government views this as its opportunity to cram in the sentence or budget-number goal that will bolster its case in legislative battles. The speeches are always supposed to have a “theme” but rarely do, since their obligation is to be encyclopedic. They’re usually lumbered with would-be eloquent passages but are more often notable for their creaky transitions, on the model of “turning now to world affairs” or “we cannot be strong overseas unless we are strong at home.”
But precisely because the whole government can see them coming so far in advance, State of the Union addresses usually reveal a certain pride in workmanship. The president usually practices. The fact-checkers usually take care with questionable facts. The speechwriters are usually ready to kill themselves by the end of the process, but they’ve done their best to avoid cliches or passages that could have been taken from high-school oratory contests.
By those usual standards, Trump’s quasi-State of the Union address (some presidents call these first-year speeches State of the Union, some don’t) was of a low-average level. Trump read the speech from the prompter in a perfunctory and sometimes rushed-seeming fashion—or so I say, mentally comparing him with the dozens of such speeches I have seen. You could tell the difference in the handful of moments when he ad libbed—“a great, great! wall”— and momentarily came alive. Paragraph by paragraph, the speech dispensed even with the pretense of transitions from one theme to another, or feints at continuity. Sentence by sentence, it was uncomfortably close to speech contests at the junior-high school level: “The challenges we face as a Nation are great. But our people are even greater.”
So if this were just one more address to Congress—by either of the Bush presidents, or Reagan or Clinton or for that matter any modern figure—I think the general reaction would be: This is OK, barely.
But because this was by Donald Trump, and because stylistically it was such a contrast to his other big-deal rhetorical presentations, it is in my view receiving a significant grading-on-the-curve benefit. For other presidents, sticking close to the pre-released text was a routine expectation. In Barack Obama’s case, it was the source of right-wing criticism that he was “slave to the teleprompter.” In Bill Clinton’s case, a prompter emergency gave rise to his policy-detail improvisation in a big speech on health-care policy in 1993. But before Trump, no one wondered or worried whether a president could stick to the text, or felt relief that he had.
Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address, as I argued, was shockingly dystopian. His “I alone can fix it” acceptance speech in Cleveland was shockingly Il Duce-like. His speeches along the campaign trail—well, we remember them.
Although the substantive proposals in this speech were consistent with what Trump has been saying all along, the speech sounded more normal as he said them. It began with a mention of the anti-Semitic threats and desecrations about which the Trump team had been so notably silent, plus Black History Month. It avoided attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” or the obsessive comments about his “historic” “landslide” victory that had studded so many of Trump’s remarks. Even as the substance tracked Trump’s previous positions—or even when, as with his insistence on the threat of “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” it reemphasized positions that advisers like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster had seemed to challenge—it was several decibels down from his accustomed tone. Linguistically the speech was also less aggressive. Trump didn’t describe his opponents as “losers” or “enemies” (though he made ample use of his favored term “disaster” to describe topics from Obamacare to current foreign policy).
This speech offered no more of the “we Americans are in this together” notes than usual State of the Union addresses—but because it had so many more than what we’re accustomed to from Donald Trump, it was received in TV-pundit land as being more “presidential” and statesmanlike than the same speech from any other president would have been. In short, if we heard this speech afresh, without knowing the speaker’s rhetorical history, I don’t think anyone would be saying: Gee, that was so unifying and high-road!
More Impressive: Massive as they typically are, most joint-session speeches like this are actually tips of the iceberg, mere hints at the huge bulk of policy work and attention-to-detail that lie beneath. Criticize as you will the policies that presidents as different as Carter and Reagan, or Clinton and Obama compared to both of the Bushes, have laid out, still you won’t find many obvious, glaring factual errors in passages from their major national addresses. Shading facts in a favorable direction, sure. Willfully misstating them is rarer. In most cases, someone inside the government would say “wait a minute!” before whoppers made their way into a speech.
This speech contained whoppers. For example: As part of his “the economy was terrible when I got here” pitch, Trump said that “94 million Americans are out of the labor force.” That’s “true”—but only if you include people who have retired, or have disabilities, or are still in high school or college, or for a variety of other reasons aren’t actively looking for jobs. Which is to say, it’s completely false in the context in which Trump used it—and its preposterousness has been pointed out before. I know that the economics team would have given me trouble if I had tried to put a cooked figure like that into one of Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union addresses, and I believe the same would have been true in other administrations. The New York Times offered a real-time fact-check of similar sloppiness in Trump’s speech. One of the most notable was his claim that foreign-born terrorists were a major source of violence inside the United States. (They are not.)
Again, from the Vietnam War through the Iraq War to Syria, administrations have mis-stated reality, wittingly or otherwise. But as a routine matter, they have tried to avoid unnecessary distortions. Thus if you heard this speech with fresh ears, not knowing its origin, you would probably give it the benefit of the doubt by assuming that its factual claims had been through the standard vetting process.
Perhaps more important, you would probably also assume that there was an iceberg of policies—real ones, with budgetary estimates attached to them, and specific details, and decisions made about the toughest trade-offs—beneath those tips of conceptual goals that stuck up in the speech. If you say in the State of the Union that you’re taking a new approach to crime, then in normal administrations you’ve got a whole set of proposals ready for the Congress. If you say, as Trump did, that you want to spend $50 billion more on the military, you have specifics ready on how and why and where. If you promise to build a “great, great wall” or have a huge infrastructure program, you’re ready with the details on funding—and how, exactly, they match up with your simultaneous promises to cut taxes and reduce the deficit. If you’re taking up the two most contentious issues for your own party—in Trump’s case, what exactly to do about immigrants who are already here, and how exactly to “replace” Obamacare—you don’t make them major subjects of your speech unless you’ve already wrestled with them at a first-principles level. But Trump presented them the way you would in a campaign speech — as a set of goals and promises, with no indications of where the difficult lines will be drawn.
The same was true on nearly any point of substance. To wrap up this theme: If you heard this speech from another president, you might have had a more favorable reaction to it, because you would assume that the factual claims had been more carefully examined, and that the main policy objectives were backed up with ready-to-go proposals. When Barack Obama gave his initial address to Congress eight years ago this week, he explained the long-term goals of his $800 billion stimulus plan—which he had already presented to Congress six days after he took office, and which had passed both houses and taken effect before February was out. Something similar was true of Jimmy Carter with his energy legislation in 1977, and Ronald Reagan with his tax-cut plans four years later. Yes, moving too fast can cause problems, just like moving too slow. But we have no recent parallel for an administration with so few of the big questions answered (and so few senior officials in place to do the answering), so many weeks into its term.
Particularly Shocking: When I was working on State of the Union speeches in the 1970s, the “Lenny Skutnik” tradition did not yet exist. Skutnik was a young D.C.-based civil servant who in January, 1982 dived into the frigid Potomac to help rescue survivors of an airliner that had crashed into the river. For his State of the Union address two weeks later, Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik to sit next to Nancy Reagan in the First Lady’s box, and called him out in the speech as an example of American heroism. Ever since then, the First Lady’s box has included guests whose character or achievement illustrate themes the president would like to stress.
I’ll pass over Trump’s inclusion of a group prominently featured at the Republican convention: relatives of those who were killed by illegal immigrants. This is hateful in my view—you’d have a much larger pool to draw from if you were choosing relatives of those killed by domestic violence, or by drunk drivers, or by accidental or intended gunfire, or by opioids or heroin, or by suicide and depression, or by other modern evils—but I know this (and the related, odious VOICE program) are part of the Trump brand.
The shock to me was the way Trump called out Carryn Owens, widow of the Navy SEAL, Ryan Owens, who died in the raid in Yemen that Trump authorized during his first week in office. He spoke of her husband’s bravery and sacrifice; she naturally broke down in tears; and the camera stayed on her as the Congress stood and gave a prolonged ovation.
The pundits I saw on TV were calling the moment “powerful” and “presidential.” I disagree. For Ryan Owens’s own commitment and sacrifice, I feel only respect, honor, and admiration. His wife’s grief must be bottomless—like that of Ryan Owens’s father, who is so bitter about the raid that he refused to acknowledge Trump or shake his hand when Ryan Owens’s body was returned to Dover Air Force base.
But the public use of a widow’s grief in this ceremony seemed all too close to the spectacle that was the heart of Ben Fountain’s unforgettable novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or the phenomenon I called “Chickenhawk Nation” in my cover story two years ago. In that piece I defined a chickenhawk nation as one “willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.” Raise military budgets, sure. “Salute the heroes” at sporting events—and big presidential speeches—yes, as well. But thinking seriously about where and how Americans will be asked to risk their lives? About exactly how the defense budget will be spent? About how the burdens of service can be more fairly shared? These topics are not so interesting.
On the very same day in which Trump had tried to deflect blame for Ryan’s death and other problems of the Yemen raid, saying (incredibly) of military leaders “they lost Ryan”; on the very day after he said publicly that the nation’s military “doesn’t win any more” and “we don’t fight to win”—at that moment, Donald Trump thought it suitable to use a grieving widow in this way. And then to say, as the applause finally died down, that the cheers had “set a record.”
If you thought this “presidential,” fine.
For me, it was too easy. And cheap. Update I agree with this merciless analysis of the moment by Paul Waldman in the Washington Post.
The president I worked for, Jimmy Carter, forthrightly took personal responsibility after his administration’s most dramatic failure, the attempted rescue of American hostages from the embassy in Teheran. “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation,” he said on national TV. “It was my decision to cancel it … The responsibility is fully my own.”
The first president I remember, John F. Kennedy, took public responsibility early in his administration for the failed invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Our most recent president, Barack Obama, said after an intelligence failure, “Ultimately, the buck stops with me.” This is, finally, what presidents do. As George W. Bush put it, each is “the decider.” They can accept credit for success, but they must take responsibility for failures.
I am not yet aware of the latest incumbent publicly taking responsibility for a mistake or a failure, of any kind, ever. That will be the next step in becoming presidential.
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