Andrew Cohen, a Fulbright Scholar in Washington, is author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
Donald Trump’s appearance before Congress this week was the sweetest moment of his sour presidency. After 39 days of melodrama, he succeeded – if only for a shade longer than 60 minutes – in conveying calm, looking normal, acting presidential.
Can he sustain this for four years? It is no small challenge for a strutting plutocrat who promised to wear the job like a crisp shirt and a well-cut suit. Instead, Mr. Trump’s administration has delivered chaos and incompetence. The sloppiness of his White House has cost him three prospective cabinet secretaries, left key jobs unfilled in his administration, created an illegal ban on Muslim immigrants and forced the resignation of his national security adviser. It’s only been six weeks.
Addressing Congress was a second chance to make a first impression. Mr. Trump needed to change the channel. Before the largest television audience he is likely to face this year, he created a spectacle.
Forget the familiar platitudes and empty promises of his economic and ethnic nationalism. It was the tone and image that counted. He is no poet, President Trump; unlike his predecessors, he campaigned in prose and governs in prose. His world, you see, does not let the light in.
But for a dilettante in power, he is learning that speeches matter. They have to be developed, refined, rehearsed and read from a teleprompter, which this one was. They need a theme, a story and a touch of theatre. Showmanship and popular culture Mr. Trump understands. At the White House, when Justin Trudeau defended reopening Canada’s embassy in Iran by reminding Mr. Trump that Canada sheltered American diplomats there in 1980, the President replied: “Oh, yes, there was a movie about that.”
Using the thin reed of the 250th anniversary of nationhood in 2026, Mr. Trump did not mention American carnage, the theme of his gloomy Inaugural Address. This time it was American ambition. It made the words more palatable.
A presidential address to Congress is an American ritual. The audience is the political establishment, some of whom Mr. Trump derides: members of the Senate and the House; members of cabinet; most of the justices of the Supreme Court; gold-braided ranks of generals and admirals. Family, diplomats and special guests are used as props. In a country founded in reaction to monarchy, all curiously genuflect before the Emperor.
If Donald Trump – or his detractors – doubted that he was in fact President of the United States, their incredulity faded when he entered the chamber, stepped into the well of the House of Representatives at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday and bathed in the warm applause.
Most striking in Mr. Trump’s address were the images. Little was new in his laundry list of proposals on public works, immigration, education, tax cuts and Islamic terrorism. What was new was the studied effort to appear generous (he pointedly praised black and Jewish Americans) and disciplined, even if it meant containing his body language and stifling his inner Mussolini.
To a country unimpressed with his performance and who see him as illegitimate, erratic and unbalanced (two-thirds worry he will start a war), he projected a morsel of humility. Not easy for a narcissist who trades in bombast and belligerence.
Radiating empathy was the point of the most arresting moment of the night: the salute to Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in the raid in Yemen early in Trump’s administration.
Critics say the raid was botched. But there was Carryn Owens, the widow, seated in the gallery beside Ivanka Trump. Whatever the wisdom of the raid, no one questions the heroism of Chief Petty Officer Owens. Mr. Trump could have paid the couple tribute sincerely and quickly. But he could not contain himself. Defensively, he quoted “the great” General James Mattis confirming that the raid was successful.
The President stoked the room, milked the grief and manipulated the sobbing widow. The applause went on and on. He said Mr. Owens would be happy because the ovation set a record.
Seeming to make it about a fallen soldier, Mr. Trump made it about himself. This is natural for him.
However theatrical, it is far from certain what will come of the speech. Mr. Trump has to persuade Republicans to remake Obamacare and pay for his trillion-dollar infrastructure package, his Mexican wall, his increase in military spending and his tax cuts.
But persuading them was not what this exercise was about. It was about persuading America, about exceeding (low) expectations, showing he could act like a commander-in-chief, if fleetingly. It was about preparing, consulting, learning, becoming a serious president before he loses the argument.
In his crowded hour before Congress, Donald Trump began to do that.Report Typo/Error
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