The speech: in Trump’s beginning — words
Donald Trump becomes president of the United States today. A pragmatic man of action, he must launch his term of office with words. Will his speech set the tone of what is to come?
‘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.’
These were Richard Nixon’s words on January 20th 1969, moments after he had become president of the United States. Nixon was a Republican with a reputation as a thin-skinned brawler who inherited a bitterly divided nation.
So it is perhaps no surprise that Donald Trump has been reading Nixon’s speech. At midday today, Trump will become the 45th US president — and he will then deliver his own inaugural address.
There are signs that he, like Nixon, wants to promote a message of healing. ‘His instruction to me was: The campaign is over,’ says Tom Barrack, the head of his inauguration team. ‘I am now president for all the people.’
Authors Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson say presidential inaugurals provide four major opportunities. Some of the most quoted words in history have come from the addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. With the eyes of the world on them, presidents can now use the ‘bully pulpit’ to lay out their guiding principles and set the political agenda.
But how much can we learn from the first speech? Nixon’s presidency saw angry protests, particularly over the Vietnam war. He became embroiled in scandal, particularly the Watergate affair which cost him his job. ‘Nixon couldn’t resist going after his enemies,’ says biographer John Farrell. That parallel appears ominous for Trump.
The inaugural address has also changed over time. Until 1829, presidents spoke only to Congress, and in the 19th century they talked at length about their relationship with the constitution.
More recent presidents have addressed their ‘fellow citizens’ in front of the world’s cameras. And since 1969, political scientist Elvin Lim says, they have relied on a growing class of political speechwriters. This has made presidential speeches both less authentic and more susceptible to popular whims.
Trumped up rhetoric
The speech will set the tone for the next four years, say some. When Trump speaks today, Congress, the public, the media and the markets will respond. The world will know what to expect of America. And if he can outline a clear philosophy and a strong vision, this can guide his decision-making in office.
It will tell us little, others reply. Presidents achieve things by passing laws, not by speaking. Some excellent inaugurals have preceded poor presidencies, and vice-versa. Most contain many platitudes and few surprises. And a brief spell on stage today may hide Trump’s character and temperament — but four years in the Oval Office will highlight them.
- Would you rather give this speech or be president for one day?
- Will Trump’s speech set the tone for the next four years?
- Study the image above this story. Can you guess who said each phrase? Find out if you were right, working in pairs.
- Watch Donald Trump’s speech today (it is at 5pm UK time). Write a 500-word speech of your own, to your class, explaining your reaction. Try to persuade your classmates to agree with you.
Some People Say...
“Leaders’ speeches are meaningless.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- It’s just a powerful man giving a speech. Will Trump’s words change anything?
- The US president is the most powerful person in the world, and a new incumbent taking over is a major global event. The speech today may help you understand what ideas Trump plans to put at the heart of his government for the next four years. It will be a chance to see whether the world’s biggest superpower is going to have similar priorities to those you would like to see.
- But what’s the big deal with Trump?
- Trump tests many of our previous assumptions about how the world works. He has never held office before and much of his behaviour during the campaign would have previously disqualified him in the eyes of most voters. All this makes him, and therefore America over the next four years, a lot less predictable.
- January 20th
- The inauguration date since 1937. Before then, it was March 4th; in 1789 George Washington, the first president, was sworn in on April 30th.
- Trump recently said he was studying the speeches of presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Nixon to prepare.
- They can reunite the people after an election; rehearse shared and inherited values; set out policies; and demonstrate their willingness to abide by the constitution.
- Bully pulpit
- So called because the presidency brings authority and attention — and presidents can use these to set the agenda.
- Nixon was caught attempting to cover up the details of a break-in at the opposition Democratic party’s headquarters. He is the only president to date to resign.
- Andrew Jackson’s inauguration attracted 20,000 people. For the first time the speech was delivered directly to the American people.
- The longest to date was given by William H. Harrison in 1841. The 68-year-old spoke for two hours without a hat or coat in a bitter chill. It was said he caught a cold which led to his death from pneumonia a month later.