President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the 535 odd members of the Joint Session of the United States Congress some days ago where he received enthusiastic applause and cheers from most of the attending 290 Republicans. The Democrats sat in silence. In tone it was presidential; the first presidential type speech by Mr. Trump since he took office over a month ago. But will this speech be remembered in posterity?
History is littered with famous memorable speeches that have influenced the course of events from all civilizations and epochs; from Pericles Funeral Oration in Ancient Greece, to George Washington’s Inaugural speech, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the list goes on and on. But how do those recent speeches from the United States, Barack Obama’s Farewell Speech, Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, and the recent speech to the Joint Houses rank? Will they go down in history or are they forgotten already? To be a change agent, a speech need not be on a great occasion. Let’s look at one speech, and especially the last few sentences, that changed matters almost immediately for the speaker and the impending election.
The speech in question is Richard Nixon’s 1952 vice presidential speech regarding his personal finances. Nixon was in trouble. He was accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his backers to reimburse him for his political expenses. In other words, he was accused of fiddling the books.
General Dwight Eisenhower, the 1952 Republican presidential candidate, was about to drop him from his ticket when Nixon made what is known in history as his ‘Checker’s television address’ to the nation. It was the first time that a politician had gone directly to the nation by way of television. In the speech he gave a detailed account of, and justification for, his financial position, but at the end he told a personal anecdote about his family dog which he had received as a gift.
He told his audience in his mellow baritone voice that “regardless of what anyone said, he intended to keep one gift: a black-and-white dog who had been named Checkers by the Nixon children”. His children, Tricia and Julie, loved the dog, and he would not destroy their happiness, he stressed. Commentators said the “address was seen or heard by about 60 million Americans, including the largest television audience up to that time, and led to an outpouring of public support”. The speech proved a success as the audience felt a sympathy that immediately persuaded Eisenhower and the Party establishment to keep Nixon’s name on the nomination. It was the personal story of the dog that did it.
Donald Trump’s speeches over his first month in office right up to his recent Address to Congress, were certainly not delivered or drafted in the ‘Ciceronian’ tradition that became the hallmark of Barack Obama’s speeches. They were, it could be said, little more than a shopping list consisting of a number of paragraphs for each item he intended to pursue.
- Promising to eradicate Islamic terrorism
- Promising to eradicate crime, drugs and gangs from the cities
- Rejecting American random interventionism abroad
- Putting American first. Every decision on trade, taxes, immigration, foreign affairs will be made to benefit America
- Building the wall
- Accusing the Washington establishments and previous administrations of stealing power from the people (drain the swamp, remember!!!)
This was Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ programme. The speeches had no soaring language, no classical or historical references, no articulation of American values, no endorsement of American global order, and just one mention of the Bible in the Inaugural Address.
Then we come to the President’s speech to the Joint Houses of Congress where he repeated his shopping list but this time in a presidential tone and manner, and at the end a eulogy to Ryan Owens, the Navy Seal who was killed in action in Yemen just a few weeks ago. Carryn Owens, the widow of the dead ‘special forces’ soldier, sobbed as the president hailed her husband’s sacrifice. “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity”, Mr. Trump said. This was Mr. Trump’s Richard Nixon moment about “Checkers”.
Mr. Trump’s tone, and delivery style was calm, assertive and serious and was what we would expect from a president. The markets responded euphorically. He appealed for unity to ‘Make America Great Again’. Will this speech be remembered as Richard Nixon’s 1952 speech is? I don’t know, but it does show how tone matters, and how it can change the reception of a speech. It shows that Mr. Trump can have a more conciliatory tone when he needs to. Indeed, his tone was very much a unifying one.
The London ‘Times’ wrote on the 2nd March, “Stock markets hit record highs on both sides of the Atlantic yesterday after President Trump’s first speech to the Congress was hailed as his most conciliatory and presidential to date”. It went a long way in galvanizing skeptical Republicans to his point of view. Democrats watch out, Trump may adopt this style permanently!