Abe Lincoln was awkward, ungainly and homely. Luckily, in the pre-television age, those were relatively unimportant attributes in a presidential race in 1860 or 1864, not to mention that, in those days, custom required that presidential candidates not actively campaign. We have Lincoln’s beautiful words, from his major speeches, written by himself, with perhaps a little help but not by a team of professional speechwriters, not tested before focus groups or any of that modern stuff. I don’t really know whether saying “four score and seven years ago” instead of just “87 years ago” adds that much, but we know how we feel about it.
Nowadays, presidential eloquence consists partly of the ability to smoothly read, off a teleprompter, words written by professional speechwriters. I don’t know, I doubt if this is better, but it is what passes for eloquence in the TV age.
Donald Trump is not, by my lights, eloquent in any meaningful sense of the term as I understand it. And yet, his bizarre, semi-extemporaneous rambles at rallies obviously thrill his minions, and we have to make our peace with that.
Wednesday night, Trump broke with that style and read a speech to the nation about the coronavirus off a teleprompter.
That link comes from RealClearPolitics. I would also refer you to this piece by Rod Dreher, senior editor of “The American Conservative” for a brutal reaction to the speech.
Don’t be deceived by the name of the publication. Dreher was harshly critical of Trump’s attempt to comfort or level with the nation about the pandemic. I urge you to read it. The top of Dreher’s piece faults Trump’s delivery and criticizes some of his emphases.
Then, in a series of updates, he calls attention to many of the falsehoods, as reflected in various statements by Trump’s own administration. For example (pretty big one) Trump said he was suspending all travel from Europe (except for the United Kingdom) to America. That glitch required his own acting deputy secretary of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, to immediately tweet out a clarification: “This does not apply to American citizens or legal permanent residents or their families,” presumably including some who have been exposed. (Trump did mention exemptions for “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.”)
In case you think it’s reasonable to allow Americans caught in Europe when the outbreak started, to come home, notwithstanding the possibility that they have been exposed to the virus while in Europe, you should note that the policy also doesn’t prevent more Americans from traveling to Europe in the future and then coming home.
There are lots of other problems that could be pointed out, but I sympathize to some extent with the difficult policy challenges presented by the problem, while not wanting to forgive the president for his previous position that the virus crisis would take care of itself in a few weeks when the weather warms up.
But, at the risk of being petty, I also suggest – and you have to watch the video before you decide whether you disagree – that this was the worst performance by a professional politician, reading from a teleprompter, of a major address to the nation that you have ever seen. Trump appears to be reading words he has never seen before. Perhaps that is unfair, but judge for yourself.
This is certainly very different from Rally Trump, where he riffs, lies with abandon and draws strength from the roar of his approvers.
Here, the mistakes he makes seem not to be demagoguery, but pure incompetence, including by whoever wrote the speech. You’ve seen Trump read from a teleprompter or a prepared text before, as at State of Union addresses. But I don’t think you’ve ever seen him look this bad or this insincere. It looks something like a hostage video.