Will Trump deliver the unifying inaugural address that his aides keep promising?

The following article by James Hohmann with Breanne Deppisch was posted on the Washington Post website January 19, 2017:

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

THE BIG IDEA: Donald Trump’s advisers and surrogates keep saying that tomorrow will be the day when he finally – finally! – pivots to become presidential.

Tom Barrack, a longtime friend and business partner of Trump who is running the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said tomorrow’s big speech will focus on “the issues that unite us” and declared that the divisions from the campaign will “vanish.” “What you’ll hear in his address is a switch from candidate to president,” he said on “CBS This Morning.”

Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump will emphasize the country’s “shared values.” “He wants to continue to talk about issues and areas where he can unite the country (and) bring it together,” Spicer said.

These proclamations come even as the president-elect himself continues to attack people like John Lewis and Jim Acosta. Speaking off the cuff for 25 minutes last night at a dinner to honor Mike Pence, Trump also couldn’t help but take shots at “the haters” and the “Never Trump” movement: “They’re really right now on a respirator,” he told a crowd of 500. “They’re pretty much gone.”

Trump also roasted several leading Republicans, who are now allies, during his appearance. He said picking Pence was one of the best decisions he’s ever made but then needled his running mate for endorsing Ted Cruz before Indiana’s GOP primary, which he said Pence had only done because “every donor he had” pushed him to. On Cruz, the president-elect added: “He was a little late to the plate, but that’s O.K.” Of Scott Walker, he declared: “He can be nasty, that Scott Walker.” (An attendee sent an audio file of the speech to Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.)

Then this morning Trump seemed to, as he has before, put the onus on others for unifying the country:

— This raises an important question: Does it really matter if Trump delivers a scripted call for unity tomorrow – and then attacks his “haters” on Twitter later in the day? It’s very easy to image that the new president will deliver a speech that gets well reviewed by TV talking heads, only to step on whatever goodwill he generates by tweeting either tomorrow afternoon or Saturday morning to complain about the coverage of his coronation, to criticize those protesting against him or to whine about some perceived slight. That, then, will be what dominates the conversation.

— Trump did practice run-throughs at Trump Tower yesterday and the day before of his speech, standing behind a podium and reading from a teleprompter. He plans to do so again today. The transition team has gone out of its way to stress that the man himself is writing the speech, that it will be his words and thoughts. Trump even tweeted a picture of himself supposedly at work on the speech yesterday, though to some it appeared that he was holding a blank notepad and a closed sharpie.

“The level of personal involvement is unbelievable,” Spicer told reporters during his daily gaggle. “It is a Trump draft. It is written by him. It is edited by him. It is updated by him. So when he goes down and practices … he’s his own editor. He’s adding something here, moving something here (and) tweaking something there.”

Will Trump use the same kind of dark language he did at the RNC? Asked his expectations for Trump’s speech yesterday, Mitch McConnell cited Reagan’s 1981 address. “He certainly pointed out what he thought were the deficiencies in the country and my recollection was that he did it in a way that was not too demeaning to the people he was replacing,” the Senate majority leader told USA Today. “He painted a kind of optimistic picture about what America could be in the future. It’s OK to state the complaints, but I’d like to see an uplifting and optimistic portrayal about what America could be.

How long will Trump speak? Spicer reiterated yesterday that he’ll speak for only 20 minutes, “give or take.” But I’ve also heard that the speech has grown longer as more people have gotten involved and suggested ideas or lines to work in that Trump likes.

Trump wants to keep it as tight and crisp as possible. He doesn’t want anyone to say it’s boring afterwards, and he thinks it will be more powerful if it is more concise. As he tweeted in 2009, “Keep it fast, short and direct – whatever it is.”

Presidential biographer Doug Brinkley regaled Trump with amusing stories about previous inaugurations during a lunch at Mar-a-Lago three days after Christmas. “We talked about … how William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia after giving too long of an inaugural speech,” Brinkley said afterwards. (Harrison spoke for 105 minutes and died a month after being sworn.)

No matter what, Trump’s speech will not be as short as George Washington’s second inaugural, which was only 135 words.

Will he go off script? How long the speech runs depends in part on whether Trump ad-libs. He has shown the ability to be self-disciplined when reading off a teleprompter. At the RNC, he ignored demonstrators and hecklers as they got pulled out of the Quicken Loans arena.

Other times, he cannot help himself. I recall this passage from a Jenna Johnson story in March, when Trump spoke to the AIPAC conference: “Trump’s prepared remarks, which were posted on his campaign website on Monday evening, are mostly written as he speaks, with a heavy dose of exclamation points and em dashes. But he deviated here and there, repeating some words for emphasis and several times adding ‘believe me.’ When he mentioned his book, ‘The Art of the Deal,’ he rattled on unscripted about its greatness, and when he mentioned that President Obama will soon be out of office, he added a curt: ‘Yay,’ prompting laughter and applause from the audience as he smirked.”

How formal will his language be? He’s our first Twitter president, accustomed to speaking in 140-character staccato bursts. He can ramble, for sure, but he also speaks in short and simple declarative sentences. It would be off-brand if Trump talks like someone who he is not.

Will he make any categorically false statements? Fact checkers will be watching closely, but this is a rare speech in which he can speak broadly enough to avoid running afoul of them. On the other hand, he might try to claim that he has attracted the biggest crowd ever, which he won’t, or declare that he won one of the biggest Electoral College victories in U.S. history, which he didn’t.

How self-involved is the speech? Does he still think “I alone can fix it,” or will he call for a shared sense of national purpose? Many presidents speak in terms of “we,” not I. That’s hard for Trump.

What will be the line from Trump’s speech that someday gets etched in stone? That’s what every speechwriter who works on one of these thinks about. Trump doesn’t use soaring language. But he’s proved himself to be a master of branding. Just like he knows which of his tweets will break through on cable, he’ll have a better sense than any of his advisers about what’s going to be most memorable from the prepared text.

Examples of unforgettable lines from past inaugural addresses: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem,” Reagan said. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy said. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt said.

— Trump modeled his Republican convention speech off Richard Nixon’s, and Doyle McManus argues in the Los Angeles Times that Nixon’s 1969 inaugural is actually the one most likely to be useful to Trump, because Nixon’s circumstances were most similar to his: “Nixon won a three-way race with only 43% of the popular vote (less than Trump’s 46%), and was seeking to lead a country bitterly divided over racial tension and the Vietnam War. He decided that what the country wanted was fellowship, not division, and on Inauguration Day in 1969, he delivered a speech that was both generous and graceful — words not often attached to the 37th president.”

The most memorable quote from Nixon’s inaugural: “When we listen to the better angels of our nature, we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things, such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.”

John A. Farrell, author of a forthcoming biography called “Nixon: The Life,” tells McManus that the speech launched his presidency on a wave of relative good feelings. “He made a serious attempt to cast himself as a unifier,” Farrell said. “It did bring him a honeymoon.” RN, like DJT, was also known as a brawler when he took office. But, as McManus concludes, “Even so, that New Trump may not last. The New Nixon didn’t.”