Trump to Stress Unity in Inaugural Speech, Aide Says
President-elect Donald Trump has rarely shied away from a moment in the spotlight, whether in business or in politics, but his inaugural address in two weeks will present a singular opportunity to speak to the country and the world.
If Barack Obama established a reputation for his soaring oratory, his successor is known for salty rhetoric that’s often at odds with political convention — suggesting Trump’s inaugural address, too, could lay down a new marker.
But Trump also faces challenges his predecessors would recognize. As with President George W. Bush in 2001, who took office under the cloud of the Florida recount and subsequent Supreme Court ruling, the president-elect will be sworn in as a controversial and divisive figure. Trump, who lost the popular vote by an even greater margin than Bush, will begin his term with historically low approval ratings for a new president.
Bearing these factors in mind, perhaps, Trump plans to stress “unity” in his remarks, said Boris Epshteyn, a spokesman for the inauguration.
“Bring the country together, bring the country back to work, making sure we’re safe and secure, making sure Americans are safe in their homes and jobs,” Epshteyn said of the speech’s likely themes.
These themes might sound familiar to anyone who watched or heard Trump’s most recent major speech, declaring victory on Election Night. In those remarks, which were unusually scripted and sober for Trump, he said, “It is time for America to bind the wounds of division ... time for us to come together as one united people.”
For his inaugural address, Trump has tapped his top policy aide and occasional campaign speechwriter, Stephen Miller, to lead the writing process, although Trump and other top advisers will provide input. In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Miller described Trump as a “hands-on” partner in drafting speeches.
“He cares about what every single word says,” Miller said.
Indeed, Trump has signaled in some conversations that he would take the lead on writing. When presidential historian Douglas Brinkley met with the incoming president last week at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump told him, “I'm going to write it all myself,” Brinkley recounted on CNN afterward.
“And I kind of raised an eyebrow about that, and he said, ‘Look, I've done best-selling books, and ... I'm going to write it,’” Brinkley continued. “He's going to have speechwriters. I'm sure there are other people that are going to be giving input. But I think he liked to think that that end product that we're going to hear on that historic day in January comes from Donald Trump.”
Their commercial success notwithstanding, Trump’s books have often been products of ghostwriters or co-authors, and he has said in past interviews he is not much of a reader himself. Still, Epshteyn said the president-elect has energetically dived into the task of shaping his inaugural address, drawing inspiration from past inaugural addresses by Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan.
“It will honor history,” Epshteyn said of Trump’s address, “but the speech will be very much in his voice.”
The first inaugural address marks the moment when a president is “first going to speak with the presidential voice,” Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence,” told C-SPAN in 1996.
“It's a unique voice. Nobody ever quite has the training for that,” Fields said. “They've spoken for narrower interests all the rest of their career, and now to transcend those interests, to rise above that and find the people's voice, is one of the great challenges and one that they, I think, struggle with most diligently.”
The speech also holds a vaunted place as “one of the only times that a president knows for sure that his words will be remembered in history,” Michael Waldman, who worked on both of President Clinton’s inaugural addresses, wrote in his memoir, “POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words That Defined the Clinton Presidency.”
The role of crafting a speech of that magnitude, Waldman recalled, was a “dizzying thrill.”
“The document will set the tone for a new administration,” he wrote, “chart the course for the politics of an era, and, possibly, change the way a country sees itself.”
In terms of scale, the closest speech-writing task Trump has faced to date was his address at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when he accepted the GOP nomination for president.
Miller also played a leading role in crafting that address, which was widely interpreted as presenting a dark vision of American life today. Paul Manafort, at the time Trump’s campaign manager, argued the speech was in fact deliberately not toned down, telling CNN that Trump “framed the whole speech, this vision, around the reality of what’s happening in this country.”
“It wasn’t dark,” Manafort added. “It was reality.”
Those remarks also illustrated another element of Trump’s political rhetoric: As a candidate, he was not known for his economy of words. In Cleveland, Trump delivered the longest convention speech by a major party nominee since 1972, clocking in at one hour and 16 minutes.
But Trump has insisted he will be more succinct in the inaugural setting. With Brinkley at Mar-a-Lago, he discussed President William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address, the longest ever, not long after which he contracted pneumonia and died.
“And Donald Trump said, ‘Look, I'm going to give a short inauguration. I don't want something long-winded. I don't like that,’” Brinkley later told CNN. "... He would like it to be a shorter one. He doesn't want people standing out in the cold."
Epshteyn said the remarks, however brief, would seek to set an optimistic tone for the new administration, reestablishing Washington as a “city on the hill” — an idea espoused earlier in American history by John Winthrop, who would become governor of Massachusetts.
Still, Epshteyn cautioned, “It’s a work in progress.”