Trump’s inaugural: A chance to invoke the national ‘we’

Trump's aides say his inaugural address will not be too long, and will be a personal statement about the country’s future that is 'less of an agenda' and more of a 'vision of where he sees the country.'

David J. Philip/AP
President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, arrive at a pre-Inaugural "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

Will – can – Donald Trump talk to all Americans with his inaugural address on Friday?

Normally that’s not a difficult question to answer about a new president’s first speech. Most talk about their vision for the nation and how they’ll strive to represent US citizens as a whole. The best have moments of soaring optimism. Think John F. Kennedy’s inaugural – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” etc.

But President-elect Trump’s biggest set-piece speech to date was dark and self-focused. This was his nomination acceptance address at the Republican National Convention, where he ticked off a list of perceived problems and offered himself as the solution. “I alone can fix it,” he said of the US political system.

Perhaps on Jan. 20 the newly sworn-in Trump will switch from the individual to the collective.

'We' is inclusive

Instead of “I” he should stress “we,” according to leadership coach John Baldoni, who’s written on the inaugural question for Forbes.

“I” is a pronoun that leans toward authoritarianism, says Mr. Baldoni. That might be OK for an executive job interview. But a top executive – and especially a US president – needs the help and support of a vast number of people to get anything done.

“A president has to bear in mind that he or she is a representative of the entire nation,” says Baldoni. “We have a shared destiny. When you use ‘we,’ you are inclusive.”

According to his aides, this is a message Trump has heard. His inaugural address is not going to be full of taunts for his adversaries or a to-do list for Congress.

Instead, it will be a personal statement about the country’s future, said incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday. He’ll talk about the meaning of being an American and the challenges facing the middle class.

“It’s going to be less of an agenda and more of a philosophical document, a vision of where he sees the country,” said Spicer at a press conference.

Nor will it drone on. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who met with Trump earlier this week to talk about past inaugurals, said that the new president does not want to keep people out in the cold.

“He doesn’t want it to be long,” said Mr. Brinkley, emerging from his Trump Tower get-together.

For Trump the good news is that his competition isn’t too stiff. There have been 57 inaugural addresses in the nation’s history, and most were dreadful. Until the late 19th century they tended to wander into impenetrable thickets of classical history. (William Henry Harrison: “The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud Democrat of Athens…”)

They were long. They digressed. They chewed over issues and bits of legislative gristle utterly unremembered today. Some had a sort of boring peevishness about them. (Ulysses S. Grant: “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard.”)

Some contained predictions as wrong as they could be. In 1857, with the US roiled in sectional turmoil, James Buchanan said of slavery, “May we not then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end.”

The Civil War began four years later.

But the good ones were something.

Only four exceptional addresses

Really, there have only been four exceptional US presidential inaugural addresses. All were a matter of great writing meeting a time of crisis.

Two were by Abraham Lincoln, about whom little more can be said. One was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech, in 1932, when he told a nation shaking from the Depression “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The fourth was JFK’s. Lincoln’s and FDR’s addresses wandered at times. But Kennedy – whatever you think of his actual policies – produced a straight-through masterpiece with aide Ted Sorensen.

Every word rang true, and glowed like burning coal. There was the “ask not” cadence. There was the “let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” part.

With the Cold War looming, there was this geopolitically relevant passage:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.

“This much we pledge – and more.”

Gives you chills even today, doesn’t it?

Tremendous opportunity

Kennedy’s speech had both good lines and an elegant structure. That could be a lesson for Donald Trump. Snappy lines may make good tweets, or good cable TV discussion. But inaugural addresses are unique moments when many Americans, and people across the world, are listening to an entire speech, says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University and author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.”

“So if Trump caters simply to Twitter-friendly catch phrases (that may or may not resonate with viewers) he risks losing the tremendous opportunity the inauguration presents to align his critics with his vision for the country,” writes Professor Brownell in an email response to a journalist’s question.

One last point: Remember the “I” and “we.”

JFK used “I” in four places, with three of those in rapid-fire succession near the end. “We?” It was in his inaugural address 34 times.

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