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: