Donald Trump delivered a poignant address to the nation following the Las Vegas shootings, diminished only by the knowledge that the words and sentiments spoken were so clearly not those of the president
Our thoughts and prayers must be most strongly this evening with the souls of the 59 people killed in cold blood by a gunman as they enjoyed a country music festival in Las Vegas, as well as the five hundred-plus who were injured and their relatives, the police officers who ran towards the gunfire and those medical staff now working hard to save lives still in peril. Even by American standards, the Mandalay Bay Casino shooting is an unspeakably shocking atrocity.
At times like these, we have often looked to elected officials, particularly the president, to explain the inexplicable, to make sense of that which has no reason, and to offer some words of consolation to a shocked nation. Towards the end of his presidency, after Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston and many more such senseless massacres, Barack Obama looked visibly jaded, attempting to come up with new words of comfort as each killer dispatched his quota of innocent men, women and children to the mortuary.
President Donald Trump’s initial response to the Las Vegas attack – on Twitter, naturally – was characteristically slightly off-tone, giving his “warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families” affected by the carnage:
“Warmest condolences” is an odd turn of phrase, the first word almost congratulatory before coming crashing back down to earth with the second. Fair or not, it adds to the sense of a man who knows the social conventions and behaviours expected of him but struggles to perform to specification because it doesn’t quite come naturally.
The televised presidential statement, on the other hand, was much better, almost poetic in places. Some of the words spoken were among the most humane that Trump has ever uttered in public:
Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one — a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain. We cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims: We are praying for you and we are here for you, and we ask God to help see you through this very dark period.
There was also an effort to seek consolation in scripture and through the faith and religiosity which rightly remains important to many Americans:
Scripture teaches us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve. To the wounded who are now recovering in hospitals, we are praying for your full and speedy recovery, and pledge to you our support from this day forward.
The conclusion was particularly moving in its simplicity:
Our unity cannot be shattered by evil. Our bonds cannot be broken by violence. And though we feel such great anger at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today — and always will, forever.
In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.
Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded, or lost the ones they love so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace. And we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.
May God bless the souls of the lives that are lost. May God give us the grace of healing. And may God provide the grieving families with strength to carry on.
I have no desire to be churlish about the presidential statement, which in many ways ranked among the best remarks that Donald Trump has delivered since taking office. The president certainly expressed all of the right sentiments.
Yet the gulf between Trump au naturel and Trump on teleprompter is so vast as to be disconcerting. To witness Donald Trump extemporise and then to watch him perform at an important set-piece event is like watching two completely different people inhabiting the same body.
I assume that Stephen Miller was responsible for writing Donald Trump’s effective words today. He did well. It was not on the level of presidential statements such as Ronald Reagan’s in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster but it was effective in its poignant brevity, though my perception may be slightly skewed given that so many of Trump’s previous public pronouncements have been so dire.
But while poignant and affecting, the words recited with all due solemnity into the television camera were clearly not the inner thoughts of the president who delivered them. Donald Trump’s mouth moved and said the right things, but never has it been more painfully apparent that when it matters most (whether it be setting out foreign policy or responding to a domestic crisis) he is the ventriloquist dummy president.
A good speechwriter can literally channel their boss, “talk” in their voice. My speechwriting hero Ted Sorensen (who worked closely with John F. Kennedy from his Senatorial career right through his presidency and is responsible for crafting some of Kennedy’s most famous speeches) is a prime example, as is former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. They can conjure magic, but their magic bears the unmistakable stamp of their principal’s own rhetorical style. They elevate the person for whom they write, they do not seek to recreate him or her from scratch or mould him in their own image.
As Ted Sorensen wrote in his book “Counsellor”, a memoir of his time serving in the Kennedy administration:
Whatever success I achieved as a speechwriter for Kennedy arose from knowing the man so well – from the years we spent working, traveling, and talking together, as close friends and collaborators who communicated constantly at a time when I regarded his election and stature as my principal professional goals. That success could not later be replicated with someone else with whom I did not have that same relationship.
It stretches credulity to imagine that Stephen Miller, for all his rhetorical talents, is best buddies with Donald J Trump or that they enjoy that closeness of working or social relationships to effectively be of one mind in the way that Kennedy and Sorensen worked so well.
A truly memorable speech captures something of the essence of the speaker, and therefore the speechwriter must know them well, at least in terms of their public and civic life. But this requires the speaker to have coherent values and policy aspirations which can serve as a lodestar to their thoughts for the speechwriter to follow, and Donald Trump has shown no signs of holding any such firm principles. He has no political Northern Star. This would suggest, as if we did not already know, that it was Miller talking, not Trump, when the president stood at the podium today.
The speechwriting ideal is that it should be impossible to tell where the politician’s own voice ends and where the speechwriter’s begins. Richard Nixon once said in an interview that a good speechwriter must be “an intellectual who can completely sublimate his style to another individual”. But we would have heard a very different speech today had Stephen Miller been rash enough to sublimate himself to Donald Trump.
“There’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself” remarked a jaded but perceptive Australian journalist during the G20 meeting in July this year. The same point is equally applicable today, when there is such a painful disconnect between the words we hear and the face we see. It is painful because the poignant words of comfort are diminished, knowing as we do that the man who spoke them did not and could never have written them himself.
Perhaps we no longer value good speechwriting or want our leaders to have an aptitude for rhetoric. Maybe great oratory is passé. But I don’t think so. People still want inspiration and will grant a hearing to anybody who looks like they might provide it, whether it be Donald Trump’s shallow pledge to Make America Great Again or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a social democratic New Jerusalem in Britain.
People still want to tear down this wall. They want to be exhorted to fight evil on the beaches, in the fields and in the streets, and never surrender. They want to choose to go to the moon, and to touch the face of God. They want to believe that we shall overcome. We are human beings, and we want to be inspired.
Today, the West is led by people who preach fear and pessimism, largely because our leaders are fearful and pessimistic themselves. “Make America Great Again” sounds superficially positive, but is a cold and bleak credo at heart. The same goes for Theresa May’s ideologically lost Conservative government’s overworn pledge to deliver “a country that works for everyone” in Britain.
There is no real ambition any more because confidence in our values has not been nurtured, and slowly ebbed away. And this retrenchment, the fearful, introspective defensive crouch in which we find ourselves is echoed in our present political rhetoric. Kennedy’s exhortation has been reversed, and now we petulantly ask what the country will do for me rather than what we can do for the country (and our fellow citizens).
It will be tremendously hard to improve our politics without better political rhetoric to inspire people and call them to action, but better speechwriting and political rhetoric can only come about when there are policies and values which inspire and uplift. And on those increasingly rare occasions where we still encounter poetry in our civic life, it feels fake because it is so disconnected from the leaders delivering the speeches.
Donald Trump said all the right things today in his response to the heinous mass shooting in Las Vegas. Yet his address did not and could not achieve its full effect, because the words the president spoke and the mind which conjured them were so clearly someone else’s.
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