A two-part series on Obama’s farewell speech and Trump’s inaugural address.
President Barack Obama said his goodbye to the nation last week in a speech that showcased his oratorical skills and soaring rhetoric along with a legacy-declaring list of accomplishments, some inspirational ideas, a tender family moment and a few completely unnecessary political jabs. This week, in the midst of continued turmoil and media madness, Donald Trump will have his moment to say hello to the country as America’s 45th president.
I say hello
Inaugural addresses in America have been as unique as those who have ascended to the highest office in the land. Only a handful of inaugural speeches have proven noteworthy, so Trump doesn’t have a very high bar to clear. For example, William Henry Harrison gave the longest speech, weighing in with a mind-numbing 8,460 words. In a bit of irony he served just 32 days in office before he passed away. Though I doubt that a man who won the presidency 140 characters at a time would be looking to President Harrison as a model anyway.
Reports on President-elect Trump’s preparation suggest he is looking more toward the speeches of Kennedy, Reagan and Lincoln for guidance. I would actually suggest a deep dive into Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address as a vital resource.
Jefferson won an election so nasty and contentious that many feared that the election was going to lead to riots, rebellion or revolution. (Sound familiar?) In a sign of humility and as a signal to national unity, Jefferson entered the Senate chamber of the Capitol dressed as an ordinary citizen. Washington and Adams had both worn ceremonial swords as they took office — Thomas Jefferson left the sword at home.
Trump would also be wise to demonstrate some humility and, at minimum, leave his verbal sword behind at Trump Tower. The inaugural address is not the time to poke your enemies or spike the political football.
The teleprompter, a great gift to President Obama, is not the friend of President-elect Trump.
Trump tends to gather energy from his audience, so the speech should be written in a way that the teleprompter doesn’t get between the president-elect and his audience.
Trump’s purpose, similar to Jefferson’s, is to ensure the nation and the world that the peaceful transfer of power is what we do in America — and that hasn’t changed despite the vitriol of the campaign.
Two other points from Jefferson that Mr. Trump should include are a commitment to unity and mutual toleration. Jefferson said, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”
Jefferson eloquently declared to the people — and Trump should remind the nation — that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” We do not need to demonize those with differing opinions or question the patriotism of those whose approach to policy is contrary to our own.
I doubt that Trump is going to follow the Jefferson model — so a more plausible conclusion to his inaugural address could go along these lines: “My fellow Americans, over the course of the last 18 months, you and I have had a conversation about making our country great, and about America winning at home and around the world.
“Through my many successful business ventures I have come to understand the characteristics of winning teams. Maximizing talent is important to winning. We have so much untapped talent and potential in this country. We have untapped potential in our inner cities, in our natural resources, in our communities and in our businesses — and above all we have untapped talent and potential in far too many of our citizens. Yes, America has immense talent, and we are going to maximize it and unleash it.
“Maximizing talent alone is not enough for the kind of winning we intend to do in this country. I have also found that winning teams unite around a common purpose. We all know that America is the greatest country on earth — and deep down we all know that we can be so much better.
“Many have thought that the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ was just a good campaign idea and a way to sell a lot of hats. It isn’t a slogan — it is a purpose. I invite you today to join me in uniting around that purpose. As Thomas Jefferson challenged the nation, ‘Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.’
“Today we say hello to a new chapter in American greatness. For too long, Washington has said to our citizens: Trust us to solve problems and make the country better. I am not asking you to trust me, or any entity of government, anymore. Starting today, I am asking Congress and every federal agency to trust the American people. Because I trust you! I trust you to keep more of your hard-earned money — so we are going to lower your taxes. I trust you to build businesses and communities — so we are going to eliminate economy-crushing regulations. I trust you to make the decisions about your health care or your child’s education needs — so we are going to transform our health care and education systems. Bottom line — I trust you to make and keep America great.
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“United in purpose, committed to unleashing America’s talent, and with our trust firmly planted in the extraordinary people of this country, we can once again show the world, and remind ourselves, what American winning looks like. American winning includes every citizen having the opportunity to rise. It includes reaching out to help a neighbor or a nation in need. It includes leading the world as a shining example of innovation, industry and individual liberty. This is who we are and this is what we will do together as we make America a greater and more exceptional nation.”
If President-elect Trump can say hello to the world in that way — there will be much to celebrate and even more to look forward to as the nation moves on.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.