What We'd Like to Hear on Inauguration Day
When Ronald Reagan reviewed the first draft of his inaugural speech 36 years ago, he remarked that while he appreciated eloquence, what he really wanted was for America to hear, in his straightforward voice, words that would raise the curtain on his administration. He reminded me that in Hollywood he wasn’t known as a good script writer, but that he was a pretty good script doctor. And the final version achieved precisely what he wanted: letting his fellow citizens know how he planned to pull the nation out of the crisis crippling our economy and sapping our emotional strength.
This reminiscence of decades past illustrates the challenge faced by President-elect Trump when he steps up to the podium on Friday. Mr. Trump’s campaign rally remarks in Warren, Mich., and Tampa, Fla., will be little noted and long forgotten, but his words this week will echo.
Thus, what is it that the new president should seek to achieve in his first big moment as leader of the free world? First, he should not obsess about finding phrases to line the shelves of famous presidential quotations. Those are hard to come by. In eight years, only two of President Reagan’s quotes emerge again and again: asking Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and his inaugural observation that government was the problem, not the solution, to the economic crisis of that day. And certainly no one expects exquisite poetry from the deal artist. Instead, Mr. Trump should strive for message and tone.
But messages and tone can get submerged in the arcana of detail. In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland, the nominee laid out a sumptuous agenda table to lift the economy, stop crime, cut taxes, end illegal immigration, reduce debt, fund infrastructure, put America first, and resolve Iran, ISIS and Iraq. But the inaugural address is not a State of the Union address. There is plenty of time and opportunity to let the Congress know the minutiae of the Trump game plan. Chuck Schumer knows he will get a finger poked in his eye very soon; it doesn’t have to be on January 20.
What I think we’re looking for in this speech is what made the 2016 election so unique – what made it possible for Donald Trump to vanquish a dozen and a half Republicans and then stop cold the Clinton machine in the Electoral College. Yes, he knew he was going to win all along, but most of America did not. So, he saw something in our country, and the country saw something in him. Crossing America, the Manhattan billionaire had the opportunity to peek into the back rooms of America, a rare excursion to witness a yearning for hope and change that wasn’t the dreamy, mushy kind out of a Bob Dylan song – but that which grew out of a life busted by political correctness and misplaced government.
Congress’ Joint Inaugural Committee switched the swearing-in ceremony to the West Front of the Capitol for President Reagan’s first ceremony, and it has been there ever since. Donald Trump will be looking west, symbolically over the rest of America. This is a moment when he can tell us what he saw out there as he crossed our states. He saw something others did not see and certainly something the political class and we smarty-pants experts did not see. This is where the plain-spoken man we have come to know should speak to the “forgotten men and women” in the country he paid tribute to in his election night victory speech.
There is, I believe, a sentimentality in Trump, and I think it’s okay to let it be seen this week. No one who talks about creating a society that rewards the “believers, dreamers and strivers” and lets slip about the warmth and friendship of his late brother, is altogether encrusted by layers of gruff. Unrigging the system, as he always said he would do, was not about helping Goldman Sachs or Carl Icahn. When he first came down the escalator in Trump Tower, I’m not sure he anticipated the direction his campaign would take. But as it unfolded, and as he bulldogged it to success, he did it in the slipstream of those who thought America weak, unsafe, not proud and certainly not great.
The words Mr. Trump needs to find are those that bring texture to all the messages he brought together in those final campaign days, which gave Americans enough confidence to place the massive powers of this office in his hands.
Finally, a couple of requests.
Mr. Trump is given to repeating phrases and to inserting parentheticals – some are asides or afterthoughts and others are for the purpose of underscoring. Regarding these: please don’t. The inaugural address will be read as well as heard. Years from now, those flippant asides or repeated phrases will look out of place. He and his collaborator have given much time to this text, and he should stick with it.
I think, also, there is some story we do not yet know about Donald Trump – not a squishy tale out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. That would not fit. But there may have been something in life that shaped and defined him and prepared him for this moment that brought him to the sincere embrace of making America great again. It is a public piety, but America is already great, and perhaps there was something that stirred in him the belief that he could help make it greater. We would all love to hear what that is.