Critic's Notebook: Trump Delivers His Best Impression of a President in First Congressional Address

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President Trump toned it down in his carefully scripted speech that nonetheless featured his greatest rhetorical hits.

President Trump delivered his first address to Congress on Tuesday night, and it was the best congressional address ever. Not since George Washington has a president delivered such a speech. All of the surviving former presidents who watched it were green with envy. Trump had the audience in the palm of his hand. In a single speech, he united Republicans and Democrats, who time after time rose to their feet in unison to give him rapturous ovations. The ratings aren’t in yet, but this was certainly the most-watched presidential address in the history of the republic. The entire country was swooning over this leader personally chosen by God to save us from American carnage. Believe me!

(OK, that should be enough for Trump’s handlers to clip and show to him over his morning coffee. He’s not much of a reader, so anything more than a paragraph would be superfluous. Now, let’s get back to reality.)

To his credit, Trump gave his best impression of a president during his carefully scripted, rehearsed speech. There were few ad-libs, and while he didn’t exactly backtrack on any of his campaign promises or policy positions, he delivered them in a way that didn’t immediately call to mind his reality-show impulses. His followers were no doubt thrilled (hey, he used the words “radical Islamic terrorism” even though his national security adviser told him not to!), while liberals and Democrats were left disappointed that he didn’t froth at the mouth. You can expect a short-term bump in the polls, until the realization sets in that he won’t be able to deliver half of what he promised.

The far different tone was evident from the beginning, even if Trump couldn’t restrain himself from thanking the crowd even before Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivered the obligatory introduction. He started by citing the end of Black History Month, which felt pretty silly coming from a president so steeped in black history that he refers to Frederick Douglass in the present tense. He then condemned the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks — a contrast to his commanding a yarmulke-wearing journalist to “Sit down!” when he dared to ask a question on the subject. He also referenced the recent shooting of two Indian immigrants in Kansas City, which were the first words he’s had to say on the matter.

For someone who prides himself on not being a politician, Trump sure sounded like one. He announced that he was conveying “a message of unity and strength, deeply delivered from my heart.” He said that “a new national pride is sweeping across our nation,” and that it represented “a renewal of the American spirit.” It made you think that this was going to be a speech written by Hallmark.

“America is strong, America is proud, and America is free!” he proclaimed, although about the last he presumably didn’t mean the press. “In 2016 the earth shifted beneath our feet,” he declared, which is something even Democrats could agree with.  

As is customary with presidential addresses, the room was sharply divided. The Republicans leaped up so often it looked like their chairs were equipped with ejector seats, while the Democrats seemed to be wearing seat belts. If you were playing the drinking game in which you downed a shot every time there was a close-up of a dejected-looking Nancy Pelosi or Elizabeth Warren, you got drunk very quickly. On the other hand, if you were drinking every time you saw Ryan grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary, you were dead long before the speech was over.

Trump delivered a laundry list of his accomplishments thus far, none of which had to do with the minor detail of actually getting legislation passed. He rattled off the names of companies that were bringing back jobs to America, although he left out Play-Doh, because it would have just sounded funny. And he talked about bringing relief to coal miners, prompting a standing ovation from Democratic West Virginia Sen, Joe Manchin, whose picture accompanies the dictionary definition of “tightrope walker.”  

Trump didn’t neglect his base, promising to “dismantle criminal cartels,” end “lawless chaos,” and build “a great, great wall!” “Bad ones are going out as I speak,” he announced, and it was hard to tell whether he was talking about illegal immigrants or his own inflammatory comments. He promised to “serve, protect and defend” the nation. It sounded strangely like the motto of police forces, but then again, we might soon be living in a police state.

“We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists!” he declared, although he’s allowed plenty of room for them in his administration.

Trump proudly talked up his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. “I am asking the Senate to quickly approve his nomination,” he said, as you realized that this may have been the first time in his life when he actually asked for something instead of simply ordering it.

The president duly recited his greatest hits, including “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”; “Repeal and replace!”; and, my personal favorite, “Buy American and hire American.” He decried the “disaster” known as Obamacare, as Ryan and Mike Pence fulfilled their roles by shaking their heads miserably behind him. And he described his own health insurance plan, which involves such things as health savings accounts. It sounds good, until you remember that most Americans have trouble balancing their checkbooks.

Trump also delivered a newfound call for unity. “Why not join forces and finally get the job done?” he asked the audience that clearly looked uninterested in answering the question. “Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of the country,” he advised, using a line that definitely wasn’t written by Steve Bannon.

Speeches to Congress have come to resemble Show and Tell, and this one was no exception, with Trump displaying a gallery of human props. Reminding us that today was “Rare Disease Day” (Damn, I forgot to get a gift!), he introduced a “rare disease survivor” in the form of a 20-year-old woman whose father founded a pharmaceutical company that created a cure for her illness. He used her to buttress his argument that we should slash restrictions on the FDA so more miracle drugs could be found, even though her very existence is a rebuttal of it. He also introduced relatives of murder victims killed by illegal immigrants, before announcing the creation of a new agency to publicize crimes committed by aliens. It’s to be called VOICE, meaning “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement” (it must have taken hard work to come up with that acronym), and, judging by the audible boos Trump received, it’s not going to be very popular.

The evening’s most emotional moment was Trump’s introduction of the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the recent raid in Yemen. There was a long, sustained ovation for the grief-stricken woman. But the effect was marred by its manipulative factor, since Owens’ father has refused to meet with Trump and publicly condemned him for approving the operation. And then Trump made it even worse.

“Ryan is looking down right now, you know that,” he said to the sobbing widow. “And he’s really happy, because he just broke a record.” Leave it to Trump to reduce human tragedy to a posthumous approval rating.

Referring to his negotiating skills in getting foreign countries to pay protection money for American military assistance, Trump announced, “The money is pouring in!” like he was a host on the Home Shopping Network. “My job is not to represent the world, my job is to represent the United States of America,” he declared, much to the world’s relief. “America is friends today with former enemies,” he announced, as the camera cut to a glowering John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he finally proclaimed, and he’s right about that. There’s absolutely nothing trivial about the fights concerning the future of the country that will be fought over the next four years.

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