At the Ragan speechwriting conference that I attended last week in Washington, you heard one question over and over.
“Does Trump even have a speechwriter?”
One political speechwriter in the know said she knew Donald Trump in fact had a speechwriter on staff. But had the person yet touched his or her laptop?
Sure doesn’t seem like it, was the universal shrugging answer: one third smug superiority, one-third wonder and one-third: Uh oh. If Trump connects better with people without speechwriter, maybe all of them will try it.
After tonight’s AIPAC speech, professional speechwriters have less to worry about. But anyone who dismissed Trump on grounds that he couldn’t ever pull off a credible convention speech, let alone a state of the union—that person has more to worry about.
There’s no doubt that Trump leaned on a speechwriter for this speech, clearly understanding it was not a good idea to wander into an 18,000-seat arena and address the supporters of American Israel Public Affairs Committee with his usual oral twitter feed.
Trump’s previously underemployed speechwriter had clearly used the downtime the way speechwriters should: Listening to the boss talk. Like the best speeches, this one sounded a lot like the natural voice of the man who delivered it. It was so well written that, more than any teleprompter-read speech I can remember, this one seemed both carefully written and spontaneously delivered.
Trump’s supreme confidence helps that. He certainly has no trouble pausing dramatically, especially for applause. At several points after delivering an applause line he actually turned and acknowledged the cheers of crowd members directly behind him. I’ve never even seen that before.
I don’t know if they were written in ahead of time, but Trump’s catch-phrases—“I’ll tell you what,” “this I can tell you,” and “believe me”—gave the prepared speech the same semi-comical strut of the rhetorical jumbles he gives on the trail. At one point, he interrupted a phrase, “with President Obama in his final year” with a “yay!” that he knew would receive applause. It’s hard to write “yay” into a script. And it’s hard to deliver a “yay” in the middle of a script, whether it was originally included in the script or not. Whatever the case, Trump delivered it with authentic force, which immediately dissolved into a grin and a round of applause from a crowd that wanted to believe it was in on the wink.
But this speech—and this is why I’m pretty sure it was written not just by a speechwriter, but one who had consulted carefully with AIPAC insiders—was no jumble. After saying he had not come to pander to the pro-Israel group, he pandered to them like all the other candidates did, each in their own style. (You don’t appear in front of 18,000 people in order to tell them off.) But as much as any of the other candidates, he pandered to AIPAC in an organized and systematic way, blaming every problem Israel faces on every factor and actor other than Israel. A partial list—it was hard to keep up—Palestinians, Iran, the United Nations, President Obama and Hillary Clinton were all to blame for Israel’s troubles. And when he is elected, he will sit down with Prime Minister Netanyahu and straighten everything out. Believe me.
At the very end, he said his daughter Ivanka would soon—and maybe as he spoke!—give birth to a Jewish baby.
So the speech was coherent, it was measured, it was tailored carefully to the occasion and it brought out the speaker’s true personality. It showed evidence that the speaker cared enough about the audience to learn precisely what it wanted to hear, and it recited it as exactly as it could. Which the audience appreciated, because just as you don’t wander into a stadium to insult everyone, you don’t gather with 18,000 members of your community to have the speaker tell you that you people are partly to blame for your problems.
Of course, speechwriters are my people.
And because of my people’s economic interest in the elaborate time-honored speech-crafting process that puts food on our tables, I’m relieved to see that there are some events that even this rhetorical Evel Knievel won’t ad-lib.
As an American citizen who personally does not want to see a President Trump, no matter how good his speeches are, tonight I saw yet another of the many imagined barriers to his presidency—a perceived inability or unwillingness to deliver the kind of coherent address that most Americans demand a president to deliver—I saw that barrier evaporate like the preposterous promise of a Mexican-funded border wall.
That I can tell you. —DM