Frank Capra, it was not.
But it’s safe to assume the 2019 State of the Union address was written by someone who’s seen a lot of movies about Washington — just not very good ones.
It was filled with cliches and bad grammar, and to borrow a recent phrase from Esquire’s Dave Holmes, its writer heard about transitions once and was like, “No thank you.”
But these speeches, increasingly more prose than poetry, aren’t what they used to be. Heck, this one almost didn’t even happen, and I’m not sure we’re better off because it did.
Most glaring, though, was the unusual and seldom-before-seen affectation of its deliverer.
A man most known for fomenting and exploiting the fears, insecurities and, at times, darkest animosities of many voters tried on a startling color tonight — optimism. And the result was…mixed.
President Trump bookended the State of the Union with language he’s not prone to adopt, opening with the acknowledgment that Americans are “hoping we will govern not as two parties but one nation.”
His early call for bipartisanship, his nods to our “unlimited potential” and his description of our “great American adventure” was a far cry from the “American carnage” of his first inaugural address two years ago.
He was also uncharacteristically sanguine about the state of our union, which he called strong. Ticking off his recent accomplishments — lifting 5 million Americans off food stamps, overseeing the “hottest economy” in the world (hard to fact check), issuing in an era of energy independence, presiding over our “most powerful” military, he insisted “America is winning, each and every day.”
The middle of his speech took a more familiar turn as he moved to his core issue, immigration, which he spoke about with his usual doom and gloom. He was also sure to work in his displeasure with those “ridiculous partisan investigations.” The line that’s sure to be the most galling to Democrats: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” (That line, incidentally, is most galling to speechwriters, too, but because it’s just so darn hacky.)
Then the end jerked abruptly back to hope and greatness. In what was I’m sure meant to be a William Jennings Bryan moment, Trump thundered: “We must choose whether we squander our inheritance — or whether we proudly declare that we are Americans: We do the incredible. We defy the impossible. We conquer the unknown. This is the time to re-ignite the American Imagination.” Then, something about summits, stars, love and patriots.
It might have been inspiring if it had been coherent.
But the problem with Trump’s newfound optimism is twofold. For one, it simply isn’t believable. Remember, this was a candidate who decided America wasn’t actually all that great, but needed to be made great again. American institutions once thought of as great by a great many people — a free press, law and order, our elections, our intelligence community — weren’t actually all that great to him, either. Revered traditions, like honoring our fallen soldiers on Veterans Day, for example? Meh. Our allies? Who needs ‘em. Trump’s presumptive raison d’etre has always been to ask in one way or another, “What’s so great about America, anyway?” and then answer by saying something along the lines of, “Me.”
Tonight, his waxing poetic about our inherent greatness seemed phony and phoned in.
But the other problem with his staged optimism is, I’m not so sure we are craving it.
His supporters certainly didn’t elect him because of his radiant positivity. And his detractors don’t want comity or unity — they want Democratic lawmakers to torpedo his agenda, with a side of impeachment. And it’s my sense that everyone in between is just sick of the lot of them.
Who knows why the President or his speechwriters decided to try this new shade on for size, but we can be sure it won’t last long. I’m guessing he returns to his usual complaints about the country in 3, 2, 1….