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Can Trump sustain newfound aura of gravitas?

Kathleen Parker on

WASHINGTON -- It was a good speech.

Calm down. I said good.

Despite talking for an hour and 20 minutes, the longest speech since Bill Clinton's much-mocked 2000 stem-winder, Donald Trump's first State of the Union address did exactly what it needed to do: nothing.

It wasn't strident; it wasn't provocative; it wasn't alienating; it wasn't retributive; it wasn't divisive -- except to Democrats who would have sneered in disgust even if he'd said, "I'm sorry for all the ridiculous, mean things I've said the past year."

All disclaimers and critiques aside, there's a rule known to all public speakers: People don't remember what you say; they remember how you make them feel. Only journalists, pundits, politicians, professors and speechwriters will closely examine the content of the president's speech. The rest of America, to the extent they watched the speech at all, will have gone to bed thinking, "Gosh, he was surprisingly good. Maybe there's hope after all."

Listening to post-mortems on television Wednesday morning, I was struck by the consensus that Trump sowed division in his address to the nation. I even heard words such as "horrifying" to describe certain aspects. I'm thinking: You don't know the American people.

The crux of most of the criticism was that Trump gave a speech encouraging unity while doing the opposite. By this they meant he invoked several hot-button issues, such as the "take a knee" movement and the violence of the Salvadoran gang MS-13.

Both of these references among a smattering of others were strictly gratuitous and meant, presumably, to bestir the base. But when compared with the fire and brimstone of his inaugural address, these represent relatively minor flaws. Indeed, most Americans do prefer that people show respect for the national anthem by standing, and they are fearful of the potential for violent characters to cross the border without enhanced security.

To Democratic ears, of course, Trump was fear-mongering and race-baiting, which, while not unprecedented, seems nearly as gratuitous a reaction. This was underscored when Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III, during his State of the Union response, intoned: "Vamos a luchar por ustedes" (We're going to fight for you).

Otherwise, it is only reasonable that the president cited laudable benchmarks -- economic progress, surging markets (notwithstanding Tuesday's brief plummet), and greater business confidence. Noteworthy are recent stories about people who, through one retirement plan or another, are feeling friskier these days. Fidelity recently reported that the average annual return for 401(k)s hit 15.7 percent by the third quarter of 2017.

None of these tidings erase errors of Trump's first year in office or the negative effects of his often-mean-spirited rhetoric. Nor does it alter the realities of the ongoing Russia investigation, the likely-to-be released memo by the House Intelligence Committee or the administration's general dysfunction. Nor am I inclined to redact the many critical columns I've written.

But it was a good speech.

A more complete and fairer appraisal would note that Trump also said plenty to engage the other side of the aisle, including a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, also known as "Dreamers." Naturally, one of the first things to pop up Wednesday morning when you Googled "SOTU and immigration" was that David Duke praised the president for his line, "Americans are dreamers, too." Please. Who cares what David Duke thinks or says?

And by the way, Trump didn't begin his day Wednesday by tweeting. Wait. Let me rephrase that: THE PRESIDENT DIDN'T TWEET!!! OMG!

Not to jump the gun -- or the shark -- but, prematurely speaking, it would seem that Trump has turned a corner. Overall, his address to Congress was conciliatory in tone; his morning after was free of the usual rant aimed at someone he doesn't like; and his speech, for all the harrumphing in the usual corners, made no matters worse.

It's a low bar, I'll concede, but in a word, he seemed "normal." Is this a new Trump? Can he sustain Tuesday night's aura of gravitas? Can he just-not-be-weird for a while? As in, no more taunting North Korea, no more slamming critics, no more "fake news," and for pity's sake, no more strategic firings. If I may suggest a mantra: I will not fire Robert Mueller; I will not fire Robert Mueller; I will not fire Robert Mueller.

My fingers keep stabbing the keyboard to write: Don't hold your breath. But a more productive observation is to say what is, in fact, true: It was a good speech, Mr. President. Congratulations. You made us feel less crazed. And that, too, is good.

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Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


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