This is the Week of the Two Presidents—Donald Trump succeeds Barack Obama at noon on Friday January 20. Both men recently addressed major gatherings: Barack Obama made his official farewell to the nation, Donald Trump held his first formal press conference since being elected. Each event was highly characteristic. My take: I for one am glad we have heard the last of Obama. And Trump’s rumbustiousness is thrilling.
Obama stepped out in front of a huge audience in Chicago and delivered a long, gassy speech—51 minutes and 10 seconds. That’s 10 minutes longer than the Farewell Addresses of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan combined.
Bush 41 did not technically give a farewell address, although his speech to West Point cadets, the last of his presidency, is sometimes cited as such. I don’t know its duration, but the transcript runs to 3,300 words. The transcript of Obama’s farewell address is just short of 5,000 words, so he left Poppy Bush in the dust, too. This is a guy who really likes the sound of his own voice.
The gold standard in political speeches, so far as I’m concerned, was the one Calvin Coolidge delivered to the Massachusetts Senate 102 years ago, after being elected President of that body. It consisted of forty-four words, thus:
Honorable Senators: My sincerest thanks I offer you. Conserve the firm foundations of our institutions. Do your work with the spirit of a soldier in the public service. Be loyal to the Commonwealth and to yourselves, and be brief; above all things, be brief.
That makes the Gettysburg Address, at 272 words, look positively flabby. It makes Obama’s farewell address look morbidly obese.
What did Obama’s speech actually contain? Well, there was lots of “hope” and “change”: five “hopes” and sixteen “changes” by my count. I couldn’t actually pin down anything declarative about “hope”, but there was definitely a consistent theme on “change.” Change is good! Don’t be afraid of change! —
Constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace … It [the antecedent for “it” seems to be the danger to us from terrorism and foreign dictators–JD] represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently …
If you fear change you are a bad person!
I’m sorry, Mr. President, but that is inane. Some change is good, some isn’t. Saying, “Change is good!” makes as much sense as saying, “Weather is good!” or “Vegetation is good!” If an asteroid were to strike the earth and wipe out the human race, that would be a major change, wouldn’t it? Not many of us would consider it good, though.
And just as change is not necessarily good, fear is not necessarily bad. We have the fear instinct for a very good reason: to preserve ourselves against dangers. We may argue about whether some one particular phenomenon is or is not dangerous, but fear itself is useful and valuable, not a failing or a weakness.
Take for example that “fear of people who look or speak or pray differently.” If people who look different from me in some one particular way have a homicide rate seven times that of people who look the same as me, and a robbery rate thirteen times, isn’t fear of those people rational? If violent acts of terrorism against innocent civilians are almost exclusively committed by people who pray a certain way, is not fear of people who pray that way justified?
And look at Obama’s illogical assumptions:
If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children—because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.
Note the patronizing conflation of “immigrants” with “brown kids.” I’m an immigrant; my wife is an immigrant; neither of us is brown.
Note also the meteorological approach to immigration. It’s like the weather! Can’t do anything about it! In fact immigration is just a policy, that we can change at will. We could, without any offense to the Constitution, stop all immigration and require all noncitizens to leave our territory.
How would that be for “change”! To fear it would, of course, be weak and un-American.
And then there are Obama’s characteristic weaselly little half-truths:
I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.
I have no problem with the first half of that. I too reject discrimination against American citizens who are Muslims.
At the same time, and without any inconsistency I can see, I think we have all the Muslims we need. Islam doesn’t fit comfortably into non-Muslim nations. It creates problems that we’d be wise to avoid. Let’s stop all further settlement of Muslims in the U.S.A.
Again, I don’t know of any constitutional reason why we can’t do that.
But the second half, Obama’s assertion that Muslims are just as patriotic as we are, is open to question. It’s true in the sense that some Muslims, like some non-Muslims, are patriotic, while others aren’t. The proportions in each case bears examining. The non-patriotism of Muslim non-patriots is of a seriously different kind from the non-patriotism of Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, and Wiccan non-patriots.
This slippery sleight of mouth is very Obamaesque. And personally, I could do without all the girlish emoting that Obama went in for towards the end of the speech. By the time he’d gotten through gushing over all the hope and change he’d generated, and over his wife and daughters, etc., there was, as several news outlets noted, not a dry eye in the house.[ Watch: ‘You Have Made Me Proud’ – President Obama’s Farewell Speech Is a Powerful Road-Map for Upholding Democracy , Black Entertainment Television, January 11, 3017]
From time to time I make a resolution never to vote for any person who has shed tears in public. Then I recall that this is somewhat un-American of me, and feel a bit ashamed. My fellow Americans mostly like that kind of thing, and I ought to yield to their taste.
I just can’t, though. I’m from a nation and a time that admired reserve, fortitude, and the stiff upper lip. “I have lost my leg, by God!” Lord Uxbridge told the Duke of Wellington on the field of Waterloo, as cannonballs whizzed by. “By God, and have you!” replied the Duke.
Those are my people. They’re dead now, or old, even in the Mother Country. But they had something that’s been lost, and the loss of which I regret very much.
Trump’s presser was comparable in wordage to Obama’s speech.
The questions and answers, not counting the nested presentation by Trump’s lawyer, were seventy-four hundred words, of which by far the majority were Trump’s. So chances are Trump spoke more words than Obama. And they were pure Trumplish: unfiltered, demotic, boastful, pugnacious in self-defense, hyperbolic in praise, brutal in scorn, sometimes contradictory, occasionally nonsensical.
When he didn’t want to answer a question he just blustered. Would Obamacare guarantee coverage for current beneficiaries? Trump:
- You’re gonna be very, very proud … of what we put forth having to do with health care … We’re going to be submitting, as soon as our secretary’s approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan.
- It’ll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially, simultaneously. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably, the same day, could be the same hour.
- So we’re gonna do repeal and replace, very complicated stuff. And we’re gonna get a health bill passed, we’re gonna get health care taken care of in this country … The plan will be repeal and replace Obamacare.
- We’re going to have a health care that is far less expensive and far better.
Donald Trump’s News Conference: Full Transcript and Video, NYT, January 11, 2017
The information content of that answer is, let’s be frank, zero. You could in fact, in the spirit of Coolidge, you could make an economical translation of that 430-word answer from Trumplish into Coolidgean using just three words: “Wait and see.”
That’s OK, though. Donald Trump is by no means the first President to answer a reporter’s question with blustery evasion—by no means.
It was Trump’s style and demeanor at the presser that had us Trumpians clapping along with him. Those, and his one-liners. Four sample one-liners:
- On the suggestion that Vladimir Putin helped Trump get elected: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”
- On the allegations in the BuzzFeed file about stuff he had paid those honey-trap hookers to do in Moscow: “I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.”
- On whether he thinks the American public is concerned about him not releasing his tax returns: “No, I don’t think they care at all.”
- On Lindsey Graham proposing a bill for tougher sanctions on Russia: “I hadn’t heard Lindsey Graham was going to do that. Lindsey Graham. I’ve been competing with him for a long time. He is going to crack that one percent barrier one day.”
That’s the Trump we know and love. So was his reaction when a CNN reporter kept demanding to ask a question: “Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question … You are fake news!”
Similarly with BuzzFeed, which Trump said is, quote, “a failing pile of garbage.”
Of all the commentary on Trump’s presser, I think the one that got to the heart of the matter was Justin Webb’s in the Daily Mail, January 12th, pertaining to the point in the presser where Trump brought up his lawyer to explain about his business interests:
One of the reasons low-income Americans admire rich people is that they are do-ers who seem to live gilded lives, and not on the backs of the poor.
It’s the professional classes they don’t like—the lawyers and doctors and teachers, who invade their lives with bills and lectures. The people who look and sound like Hillary Clinton. Trump was showing that he, too, was under the cosh of the miserable lawyers—he even had one come to the podium.
And he was demonstrating that, despite this, he had admirably emerged with his businesses intact. I am no psychology professor, but this seemed to me to be playing to the gallery—i.e. those “ordinary” Americans who are so fed up with the political class—with something bordering on genius.
Bad news, Trump haters: This bonkers show has made him even MORE popular, writes JUSTIN WEBB. He played to the gallery with something bordering on genius…, By Justin Webb, The Daily Mail, January 13, 2017
Mailman Webb then goes on to warn that Trump might be too combative, too much the Alpha Male, for the suits in D.C. to put up with for long, so that they will find a way to force him out. Webb concludes:
If they succeed, it would be a bitter blow to the millions of working-class Americans who voted for Trump, folk who felt he alone among politicians understood their aspirations, and who would have been thrilled by his extraordinary, rumbustious performance this week. It would again confirm their view that the political establishment looks after its own—while the “little people” are brushed aside.
I don’t think I count as working-class. My hands are rather soft, and I only wear boots for hiking or shoveling snow. I’ll admit that I was thrilled by Trump’s performance, though, just as much as Justin Webb’s hypothetical working-class Americans.
And yes, like Webb, I worry that Trump’s don’t-give-a-damn rumbustiousness may be too much for the seat-warmers and log-rollers of Washington, D.C.—among which category I would include our intelligence agencies—to the degree that they will find some way to unseat him.
And in case you’re wondering, listeners, “rumbustious” is indeed a word—I looked it up.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He’s had two books published by VDARE.com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.