Trump Discovers the Prime-Time Address

After waiting well into his presidency to deliver his first formal prime-time speech, Obama used the medium more frequently. Will Trump do the same?

President Trump speak at the White House on April 13 about the U.S. military response to Syria's chemical weapon attack earlier in the month.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

In addressing the nation from the White House to announce the missile strike against Syria, President Trump inched a little closer to presidential normalcy on speeches. The question now is whether he’ll use the medium more often going forward.

Trump’s decision to give a formal speech instead of simply relying on a tweet, as well as his choice of venue and time, placed him in a long line of presidents. All that kept him out of the mainstream of presidential rhetoric were the usual Trumpian twists of hyperbole and his well-known relish for personal attacks.

Trump has always prided himself on being a different kind of president, and until his April 13 Syria speech, that meant no formal prime-time addresses to the nation from the White House. Of the 12 presidents to take office in the Television Age, only one waited longer to make full use of what actor Michael Douglas, playing President Andrew Shepherd in The American President, called “the single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world.”

Only Barack Obama waited longer into his presidency, preferring outside venues for his major addresses early in his first term, not giving his first prime-time address from the White House until June 15, 2010 when he discussed the oil spill despoiling the Gulf Coast. For every other president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, the distinct preference from the start was for both the White House setting, which maximized the prestige and gravitas, and the late-hour timing, which maximized the audience. It was from the White House that presidents engaged the nation on the armistice that ended combat in Korea, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, civil rights, Vietnam, the economy, energy, the Panama Canal, Poland, drugs, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

By this point in their presidencies, everyone between John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush had given at least two prime-time addresses, led by Ronald Reagan with five.

Trump could be said to have spoken to the nation six times before the Syria speech. He spoke five times in 2017: his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20; his introduction of Supreme Court nominee Neal Gorsuch on Jan. 31; his address to Congress on Feb. 28; his speech at Fort Myer on Afghanistan on Aug. 21; and his Nov. 15 report following a trip to Asia. This year he gave the State of the Union address on Jan. 30. Reflecting Trump’s belief that he does better when he has a live audience to feed off of, only the Asia trip report and Friday’s Syria speech lacked supporters to cheer him on.

Many of his supporters were encouraged by what they saw and heard, having long wanted the president to add the formal speech to his arsenal when trying to persuade. Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, is one of those who was pleased. “It’s highly unusual of Pres. Trump to give a speech explaining his actions,” he tweeted. “I think he’ll find it’s more effective than just tweeting. I hope he does it more often.”

As distinguished professor of rhetoric at Baylor University and head of PresidentialRhetoric.com, Martin Medhurst also was happy that Trump chose to give a White House address. “I prefer speeches to tweets,” he told National Journal. “You are acting in your role as commander in chief. And part of that role is to keep the country informed about what its military is doing and why it’s doing it. That would be hard to do in 140 characters.”

He also thought the speech was a step forward for Trump because he made a historical reference to chemical weaponry in World War I. “One of the things that has been unusual about Trump’s speeches is his general lack of historical awareness or historical references,” he said. “So I was glad to see that.” While acknowledging stylistic differences in Trump’s delivery, he said his speech “doesn’t strike me as greatly out of norms for presidential war rhetoric.”

As always with Trump, the Syria speech was a little more fiery than most presidential addresses. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was described as “brutal” and “murderous” and following a “dark path” and guilty of “evil and despicable” things. These, said Trump, were “not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead.” While such adjectives certainly match the alleged chemical attack, they were not found in the addresses the same night by the leaders of France and Great Britain. And they are not often found in presidential addresses. “Unprovoked and dastardly” were the most colorful adjectives in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” address after Pearl Harbor. In 1991, George H.W. Bush was closer to the Trump model, criticizing Saddam Hussein as a “dictator” who had “raped, pillaged, and plundered” Kuwait. And, in 2003, George W. Bush branded Saddam Hussein as an “outlaw” guilty of “atrocity.”

“With Trump, you’re certainly going to get the informal and colorful language,” said George Edwards III, the Jordan Chair in presidential studies at Texas A&M University. “It isn’t that other speeches don’t have some, but there is a lot more of it in Trump’s. It’s not usually high-sounding language. But it is straightforward language.” He added that no one should be surprised that Trump put the dispute in personal terms, including tweeting that Assad is an “animal.” That, he said, “is how Trump views the world, in highly personal terms, and his modus operandi is to insult those with whom he disagrees.”

There is a different impact, though, when a president says something on Twitter and when he says it in a prime-time address from the White House. Now that he has discovered that greater reach and as he enjoys the favorable reviews the speech received, it would not be surprising if Trump follows the example of Obama and makes greater use of the bully pulpit the deeper he goes into his presidency.

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