Opinion

Another Trump shocker: A very presidential speech

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., applaud.
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., applaud. AP

Did you notice how quickly congressional Democrats fled the House floor after President Trump’s non-State of the Union speech? Pffft, they were outta there.

Who could blame them?

The suddenly disciplined chief executive followed his 4,825-word text virtually word-for-word, save for a moving aside on the prolonged applause for a slain SEAL’s crying widow in the gallery. The populist president mentioned himself but 35 times. He mentioned “We” 136 times. And it worked — beautifully.

As someone who’s written more than his share of political remarks, I found it a masterful performance of a well-written traditional speech to Congress, even if the expectation bar was low given Trump’s chronic stream-of-consciousness remarks.

Some favorite passages: “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”

“History should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.”

“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. . . . From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears.”

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart. A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.

“What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.”

Once again, the blowhard billionaire from New York has tapped into the heartland’s emotions far better than those who allegedly represent flyover country in the nation’s capital. Let media fact-checkers check themselves silly on that claim. Americans beyond the parochial East feel it.

Or more precisely, they do now, once Trump articulated it for them. That is the measure of a great speech delivered skillfully. When a leader says words that resonate so people say, “Yes, yes, that’s what I was thinking.” As if the speaker is one of them and knows what they were thinking. That’s a very powerful connection in politics, in human relations. We saw it in the Nov. 8 results.

And now this. You can’t measure that kind of connection immediately. It needs reinforcing over time as it hardens into a bond, like epoxy. Franklin Roosevelt had that skill. So did Winston Churchill and John Kennedy. They said aspirational things we were about to say ourselves, even though we weren’t really. That’s the magic in superb public speaking, when you see listeners nodding their heads in agreement without even realizing it.

After Trump’s 21 months of often outrageous and sporadically effective speeches, it seems strange to mention his name right after that trio. Some readers might laugh, if they hadn’t watched the hourlong remarks live or here in CSPAN’s video library.

We are all more complex human beings than we let others see. And Donald Trump has seemed the opposite of complex. Trump playing Trump has given critics in show biz and the media ample ammo to caricature him simply as an ignorant, bragging boor distastefully full of himself.

But after only six weeks in the Oval Office, Trump, at least for one hour one evening, found the confidence to let us see another side of him, an affecting side many had given up hope of ever discerning in this 45th president. Someone we could see as a real president to trust, to be proud of.

Of course, it will take more than one speech one night to convince many Americans that Trump belongs in the White House, or at least to abide him there. And Trump could erase his powerful positive impression in coming days with a stream of self-destructive petty tweets walking all over the encouraging news of his home run in the House chambers.

But one thing is clear. The simple caricaturing of Donald J. Trump for political profit won’t work anymore. Today, it actually seems possible that someone can mature, even 70-year-old presidents. And that is good news for a country so willingly divided and childishly squabbling.

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.

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