A speech­writer for Vice Pres­i­dent Gore hopes the pres­i­dent will sur­prise him

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS | OPINION - Robert Lehrman Robert Lehrman, chief speech­writer for Vice Pres­i­dent Gore, teaches pub­lic speak­ing and po­lit­i­cal speech­writ­ing at Amer­i­can Univer­sity. He co-wrote and co-edited the book Demo­cratic Ora­tors from JFK to Barack Obama.

It was a win­ter’s day in 1989. The new pres­i­dent, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, would give his first speech to Congress. Af­ter that, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas would de­liver the Demo­cratic re­sponse — and I, his new speech­writer, had writ­ten it.

The speech’s tone was civil. Bentsen wanted to dis­agree with Bush about a num­ber of things, but say nice things about him. The sen­a­tor’s main worry seemed to be whether he should end with what was in the draft: a trib­ute to his fa­ther, who had just died.

It wasn’t all that dif­fer­ent from the ap­proach Pres­i­dent Rea­gan had pi­o­neered seven years ear­lier, end­ing his State of the Union Ad­dress with a trib­ute to Lenny Skut­nik, an un­known 29-year old who dove into the freez­ing Po­tomac River af­ter a plane crash to save a drown­ing pas­sen­ger.

Bentsen wanted to pay trib­ute. But what if he started to cry? “I’ll just read it again and again, till I know I can get through it,” he said, sur­pris­ing me by how much he cared.

Look­ing back, those days seem like they hap­pened in an­other uni­verse. As Pres­i­dent Trump gets set for his first speech to Congress tonight, should we ex­pect ci­vil­ity from him, or anger?


For a pres­i­dent who should be in a good mood, Trump’s mood is bil­ious, es­pe­cially in last week’s gloat­ing and mean-spir­ited speech to the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence. He smeared the news me­dia (“They make up sources.”), in­sulted im­mi­grants (“bad dudes”), and praised his vot­ers in a way that im­plied Hil­lary Clin­ton’s vot­ers don’t share their virtues (“A win for ev­ery­one who be­lieves it’s time to stand up for Amer­ica!”).

Democrats are fu­ri­ous, too — about his ap­point­ments, jin­go­ism, misog­yny, and what they con­sider lies. Some won’t line up for the usual hand­shake as the pres­i­dent comes down the aisle. Some might bring peo­ple hurt by Trump poli­cies: a quad­ri­plegic; les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der men and women; and un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. They will sit on their hands when in other years they might at least tepidly join in clap­ping.

This doesn’t mean Amer­i­cans shouldn’t lis­ten. Crit­ics rightly mock the vac­u­ous parts of th­ese speeches, but there is also a clash of ideas. As Trump lays out his agenda and for­mer Ken­tucky gov­er­nor Steve Bes­hear — a health care hero in his party — gives the Demo­cratic re­sponse, there will be plenty to show where the par­ties dif­fer. Will the pres­i­dent re­peat his cam­paign pledges to re­peal Oba­macare? Give any de­tails about his plans for ed­u­ca­tion, tax re­form, cli­mate change or stop­ping crime in cities? It’s not just lob­by­ists who pore over the sen­tences de­voted to each is­sue. Vot­ers can, too.


That’s valu­able, but not as valu­able as what else Trump could ac­com­plish. The pres­i­dent could reach out. Why not as­sure us that the 20 mil­lion peo­ple in­sured by Oba­macare will stay in­sured? Or in­sert a paean to the strength of di­ver­sity, in­clud­ing Mus­lims? In a month when Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors have in­tro­duced a mea­sure to slash le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in half, why not as­sert a be­lief that those who come legally — like his own grand­par­ents — are an as­set?

This would not give Trump a big boost in the polls; Amer­i­cans vastly over­es­ti­mate the ef­fect of po­lit­i­cal speech. But nei­ther would it give Trump’s base heart fail­ure. It might even give him a small start to­wards ex­pand­ing it.

Or is it naive to think that Trump feels any of th­ese things?

It is not. That’s why I re­mem­ber that mo­ment with Bentsen so vividly. As most peo­ple who spend a lot of time with politi­cians find, those one-di­men­sional char­ac­ters rail­ing at each other be­hind lecterns are more com­plex than they al­low them­selves to show.

I don’t ex­pect the pres­i­dent to dis­play much nu­ance tonight, but it would be use­ful for Amer­i­cans to see.

Whether or not it pro­motes any tan­gi­ble step to­wards unity, I hope the pres­i­dent sur­prises me. I even hope that at the end of his speech, Trump pre­serves the tra­di­tion of pay­ing trib­ute to those State of the Union he­roes. Flin­tyeyed writ­ers can scoff. But th­ese he­roes al­most al­ways de­serve recog­ni­tion. It’s OK to honor them.

And in this bleak time, such trib­utes might re­mind us that this coun­try is molded by those who feel emo­tions just like the rest of us do, that de­spite our dif­fer­ences we are sim­i­lar, too: hu­man. As we see when speeches salute those who dive into icy wa­ters to save a life — or doggedly plow, too fast, through a trib­ute to a beloved fa­ther.


Pres­i­dent Trump, speak­ing to the Na­tional Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion on Mon­day, is set to ad­dress Congress tonight.

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