CIVILITY OR ANGER FROM TRUMP?
A speechwriter for Vice President Gore hopes the president will surprise him
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.