Make Inaugurals Dignified Again
Advice for the new president on his first day — and for the media covering it.
At just after noon on Friday, Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as 45th president of the United States. He will stand on the west steps of the Capitol with Chief Justice John Roberts, who will hold a Bible, possibly two. (If the Bible is open it will likely be turned to a verse chosen by the new president. What might be inferred from its selection?) By tradition the incoming president will place his left hand on the Bible, raise his right, and repeat the oath as set forth in the eighth clause of Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution: “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear …”
At that moment roughly half the country will feel deep pleasure and gratitude. Among the other half will likely commence a new — and perhaps last, for a while — wave of grief and horror.
Network executives and producers are wrestling with exactly how to cover the inauguration, how to find the right tone and approach in a country so divided. They are aware of their own antipathy and are not ashamed of it because they see it as connected to love of country: They don’t want to celebrate a man they find deplorable and a victory they believe destructive.
For what it’s worth my advice has been: Look, just tell the story. Put focus on the people who’ve come to the inaugural, ask how they feel, what they hope for, what this means to them. It’s history — gather it, hear it, show it. Talk to the people at the balls.
What was true at the Cleveland convention will likely be true here: Trump supporters will not, most of them, be the eminently spoofable wealthy Republicans of the past. They’re not as fancy, they’re people with normal lives and resources. Cover the speech — point out what’s striking; try to locate, fairly, message and meaning. Cover the parade, capture the day. Reporters and correspondents don’t have to show personal happiness — that’s not their job. But they do have to show happiness when it’s present in others. The next day, in the so-called million-woman march, they’ll show the continuing fraught nature of our politics, and the views of that side.
Don’t make your coverage another scandal, another wedge dividing the people from their national media. If you can work up a decent passion for the traditions of the world’s greatest democracy, and show respect for the fact that America is always an astounding, confounding place, good. History isn’t boring, only bores are boring.
I keep telling young journalists to keep in mind a line they love from “Hamilton”: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.” If you’re a political reporter you’re witnessing one of the great stories ever, the Republican Party recomposing itself and the Democratic Party reinventing itself. What a gift to be here with a pen! As for me, I walk in thinking: Hope it works, pray it works, and play it straight. If something is good, say so, if it’s bad, say so. Have a heart but don’t let it overwhelm your brain.
As for Mr. Trump, he should treat the refusal of big entertainers to play at his inaugural events as an opportunity. He should wear their snub like a medal. Every four years presidential inaugurations become bigger and glitzier — movie stars, hip-hop artists, $3,000 rooms — and make normal people feel left out. They raise up the presidency too high. The fireworks and extravaganzas and galas have gone from cult-of-personality-ish to vaguely fascistic. It is unrepublican! The Trump people would be doing a public service to make it simpler, plainer, more modest, less grand and conceited and dumb. (That would play against type for Mr. Trump, too.) They wouldn’t be banishing joy — some people will have private parties and provide their own hoopla; some will have a good time with friends watching the balls on TV in the bar at the Hilton.
You don’t need the whole imperial feel. Make Inaugurals Dignified Again.
People are wondering what Mr. Trump will say in his inaugural address. I don’t know. Advice? Sure.
He should follow all protocols: “Vice President Pence, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, fellow citizens.” People crave a sense of respectful continuity. By people I mean me. Observing legitimate traditional forms suggests it.
He should read from a text. Popping off from notes is disrespectful. This one goes into the history books. Presidents bother to prepare inaugural addresses and then bother to read them aloud.
The speech should not attempt to be fancy. It should aim neither for the faux-eloquence of the present or the old and elegant formulations of the past. Don’t do, “Ask not” or “Let every nation know” or “Let us go forth.” As I once said because I’m so amusing, “Hold the let us.” The speech should be authentic to Donald Trump — the best, simplest, most coherent Trump anybody has heard. It should be direct and avoid the airy pronouncements of sentiment we now hear, where you can listen to whole paragraphs and not be able to grab onto a thought. They’re awful. They leave people looking at each other with eyes that say “Was that eloquent?” Because it sounds fancy and impenetrable they think maybe it is. But fancy and impenetrable is the opposite of eloquence.
It should not be too long. Fifteen, 20 minutes is fine, less even better. When you don’t know what you’re saying you take a long time to say it. When you know what you’re saying you get pithy. Audiences know this and associate brevity in formal address with confidence.
More substantively, the speech should define the moment we’re in, explaining what is happening now, what mood prevails. With the Trump era, something new has happened and is being tried. We are somewhere uncharted: What’s the course? Also big battles with Congress are coming, not only with Democrats but, more consequentially, with Mr. Trump’s own party members on the Hill. Republicans in Congress tend to think like Speaker Paul Ryan on entitlement spending, trade, immigration, foreign affairs. Mr. Trump stands not with them but opposite them. His relationship with Congress will start with sweetness and optimism, but surely a clash is coming. And someone is going to win.
This might form the meat of the speech: Is the new administration economic nationalist? Is it populist? Then stake out your territory — now. Define your thinking, assert your views. Don’t wait for Mr. Ryan to define you when the battles begin. If you’re serious, you’ll define yourselves.
Finally, don’t be anxious, it weighs down the work. There hasn’t been a great inaugural address since John F. Kennedy, who set the tone and template 56 years ago. Every inaugural since can be understood as an attempt to steal his sound and reach his heights.
But he had his issues, too. He’d invited Robert Frost, the great genius of American poetry, to speak. In the glare of that too-bright day Frost couldn’t read his new poem, and recited an old one instead. JFK was relieved. Earlier he had confided to his friend Rep. Stewart Udall, “He’s a master of words. I have to be sure he doesn’t upstage me.”
Even JFK was nervous.