All times Central.
For many years I’ve shown audiences of speechwriters all over America and all over the world President Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, also known as his “malaise” speech, even though he did not utter that word once during the long, televised Oval Office address.
I show the speech as a cautionary tale.
Like the nation that watched the speech live in 1979, my audiences are mesmerized. And yet they come away feeling that the speech came off on a continuum between sad and a little creepy.
And I ask them why.
The things Carter said, he said in much the same terms as Joe Biden spoke today. Carter spoke of “a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
“First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans …
“With God’s help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.”
What is the matter with any of that?
And why am I making you reread a 40-year-old Jimmy Carter speech to discuss Biden’s speech?
Because it has to do with what we looked to in a president four decades ago, and what we look to in one now–what we know we need in one now. As I said at the beginning of this day, I think our relationship with our country and its leadership has changed—because of the president we just had, and the situation we find ourselves in.
I think Carter came off like a sanctimonious moralist because he was telling people things they didn’t think a president had any business talking about: personal things, things of the soul, the “meaning of our lives.” President Carter forgot for a second that he wasn’t Pastor Carter, and Americans reminded him.
And now comes Joe Biden, a guy we’ve all known for a half century and thought of as a mediocrity most of that time, more or less. He’s preaching to us about unity, and how we should treat our fellow citizens. “My whole soul is in this,” he tells us. He’s talking about unity. Not factional unity or political unity. Personal unity, with the folks we’ve been rassling with for four years so bad we’ve got wounds with dirt still in ’em.
“History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. …
“Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. …
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus–rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.
“If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes–as my mom would say–just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”
This morning I read a Facebook post by Michael Gary Clendenin, a veteran communication exec who I’ve disagreed with politically over the years (though he probably didn’t know it), “to wish you all a happy, joyous, and hopefully healing Inauguration Day.”
“It is clear that to say that this nation has a divide to mitigate is an understatement. It is an abyss. We cannot celebrate a peaceful transition of power, nor even a respectful one, as we have in nearly every other transition, including four years ago to the outgoing President, and eight years before that from Bush to Obama. But we can celebrate a transition, and take upon ourselves the responsibility to role model for our elected leaders, rather than to expect to see examples from them, how to have respectful dialogue, open, truthful and honest debate, and a spirit of collaboration and compromise to achieve a benefit to something greater than our own selfish wants, but rather to the collective good of the country and all its people.”
I think it may be a little hopeful to expect that our leaders will treat us as role models. But I certainly think we can be role models to one another. And I think we must. And I think some of us already are!
Even over the last four years, I’ve seen many people take amazing pains to entertain discussions on their pages with reasonable people with whom they disagree–sometimes, when that disagreement seems hopeless. “My wife tells me it’s pointless,” one of these people told me the other day.
No, it’s not. Nothing you do to make peace is pointless, just as I’ve come to believe that no effort to understand is wasted.
It’s the least we can do. And for most of us, it’s often the most we can do.
And at this moment in our nation, Joe Biden didn’t sound like Jimmy Carter. He sounded like Michael Gary Clendenin–an American citizen, beseeching his fellow American citizens to do what they know they need to do if they have any sense left at all of how this troubled nation might survive.
Not all of us, of course.
But as Biden said, “enough of us” can come together “to carry all of us forward.”
My friends, communication colleagues and readers, let’s make sure we are part of that group. Let’s be part of the “enough of us” we’ve been waiting for.
My wife, downstairs, reports that she can’t stop crying. I’d better get down there. Back here once I’ve had a chance to digest the speech.
Woody Guthrie never looked so good. (Also: That voice kills fascists.)
What is so hard about KAmala?
Lady Gaga’s first notes sounded very, very good!
Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Roy Blount: Making political speech boring again, as I’ve called for.
I was also live-blogging on January 20, 2017; here are some of the highlights. —DM
I’ll be watching the speech upstairs, while downstairs a houseful of friends and family from all corners of the country, will be busily making protest signs for tomorrow’s Women’s March in Chicago. “You’re not going to watch that speech, are you?” said my wife, who will be downstairs with them, not upstairs with me. “Of course I am,” I said. “I must!”
“Oh come on—it will be all bullshit,” she said.
Remarkably, President-Elect Trump is claiming to have written his inaugural address personally. After at least six consecutive decades of steadily increasing understanding, acceptance and acknowledgement of the role of speechwriters, and in contradiction of many news reports suggesting the inaugural was written by Stephen Miller, who wrote the RNC acceptance speech this summer, Trump is claiming he authored this speech at Mar-a-Lago last month. (In case you missed it, here’s a piece of photojournalism that captured the writing.)
Which raises the question: Will Trump even have a White House office of speechwriting? (The 31-year-old Miller’s title is Senior Advisor to the President.)
Not that less visible speechwriters would be the worst thing in the world. I always liked Ted Sorensen’s stock answer when queried about his role in authoring JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not.”
But that’s different from lying about it.
A request from the Chicago Women’s March protesters in the kitchen.”Can you print these please?”
So far, an angry, populist inaugural address, similar tone to RNC speech. A shithole nation with nothing left to lose.
Quick, has the word “carnage” ever appeared in an inaugural address? What’s next, “suicide machines”?
This is absolutely terrible so far. In an inaugural address, one more description and depiction of America as the last scene in The Lorax?
He actually might have written it. It’s a boring, scripted version of his rally stump speeches. I think Stephen Miller did a far better job on the RNC speech.
And with that last Mussolini fist-shaking gesture, he wraps up an absolutely worthless inaugural address whose only virtue, unless I missed something, was its brevity.
It’s easy to pick speeches for Vital Speeches of the Day. Important speeches go in—and this one will for sure, along with every major speech President Trump ever delivers. But analyzing speeches is harder. had a ton of anxiety about live-blogging this speech, because I thought perhaps my fear and loathing of Trump would make it hard to be objective. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a speech I felt most confident (not gleeful; there is no glee) in panning. DOES ANYBODY READING THIS BLOG THINK THAT I MISSED SOMETHING GOOD IN THIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS?
A leader is a dealer in hope. Trump is a dealer in grievance. If he had hope and a mutual future in his bag, this was the moment to describe it. Instead he delivered an uninspired version of a Cincinnati campaign rally speech. An almost incredibly complete failure of leadership.
Meanwhile, lest the blog seem a little one-eyed so far, get a snootful of the below, by a Bartholomew Chiaroscuro. (It’s shared on Facebook by one of the most articulately poisonous people I know on the right, a former Dan Quayle speechwriter.)
Chiaroscuro calls today “a grim day,” and continues:
Today the dream becomes a nightmare, a nightmare that was years in the making, but enacted with purpose and malice. A repudiation of the light that came before, a celebration of all the worst instincts that had been overcome. Racial obsession and hatred, so slowly and painstakingly rejected, now sits on the throne of the world, calling itself anti-racism. Tyranny defeated abroad so many times and in so many ways, now draws up lists of enemies for punishment and re-education. Free voices are stifled and silenced, and only the followers of the chosen Party may speak and only their thoughts may be shared. Employment is dependent not on opportunity but on conformity. A stolen election is followed by a military inauguration. Patriots are labelled as enemies of the people, and the people are denied their basic rights. A new form of communism, as repressive and reprehensible as any ideology that has come before, now unites with corporate greed and Wall Street treasons in an alliance of unprecedented malice. And everywhere we see this evil thrive, those of us who still have the capacity to see and think, there is another damnable force at work, a master of illusions, an aide to tyrants, a prince of lies. The Media. At every turn casting a spell of falsehood over the scene, and profiting from the deception.
A friend just drove an hour round trip to deliver special bagels. Just like 1981, Khachigian?
He ran as a disrupter and he’s leaving on his own terms, the Fox anchorman intones. “And he’s got a wedding to plan,” adds the Fox anchorwoman. “His daughter Tiffany just got engaged!”
“Have a good life, see you soon.”
“We will be back in some form.” Douglas MacArthur he’s not.
Nixon’s farewell speech, this isn’t.
“What we’ve done has been amazing by any standard.” A unifying statement.
A non-teleprompter address planned at Andrews AFB.
So Trump walks out of the White House under a bird’s eye view and CNN’s Dana Bash says he looks “small.” It doesn’t take the most sensitive ear to imagine how asininely biased this sort of commentary sounds.
Because you wouldn’t trust a guy who pretended to be disinterested this morning.
Last week former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian had a column in The Wall Street Journal in which he urged President-Elect Biden to rhetorically treat President Trump and his supporters exactly the way President-elect Reagan treated President Carter and his, on January 20, 1981: magnanimously.
“Has Mr. Biden reached out to the disaffected Americans who supported Mr. Trump to understand their feelings and emotions and what concerns them,” asked Khachigian, “if only to include a single sentence that reflects their sentiments?”
Thanks for asking, Ken. I can actually think of a few sentences that Biden might say, even without holding an emergency focus group with Trump voters. He might say something like:
“I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas–as well as, you know, New York and California … who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.” Biden might go on to say that Trump voters need hope that “they won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Pretty good stuff, yeah? Yeah, that’s most of the language—and the original main point before it was distorted and its meaning reversed—of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” message that launched 10 million t-shirts during the 2016 campaign.
I do hope Biden speaks directly to disappointed Trump supporters today. And I think he will. And I hope he does so less clumsily than Clinton—(labels don’t go on people and people don’t go in baskets). And I trust he will.
But for Ken Khachigian to write that the challenge of this inaugural address is like every one before it: “How to rise above the rancor of the campaign and send signals of hope extending beyond the partisans who cheered him? It was no different when President-elect Ronald Reagan and I sat down on Dec. 16, 1980, to discuss preparations for his remarks …”
How does he write a thing like that with a straight typeface?
Historian Douglas Brinkley called this a “crisis inauguration” similar to those faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln: “It’s not quite Lincoln or F.D.R., but it’s awful close,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
That sounds right to me.
I’ll be live-blogging the inauguration this morning, up until the start of the speech, when I should sit and listen and not write and you should sit still and listen and not read.
I’ll pull together my thoughts afterwards and post them, too.