Addressing the nation from the Oval Office is one of the hallmark uses of the President’s ability to communicate something directly to the American people with the full trappings of the office. Traditionally it has been used to convey the most serious of matters. Hoover was the first of the modern era to do so, on radio of course. FDR’s famous “fireside chats” technically fit the definition. But it was Truman who made the first televised address to the nation from the White House, to all 44K that had TVs at the time, at least. JFK informing the nation of the Cuban missile crisis, Nixon resigning, Ford pardoning Nixon, Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, George HW Bush announcing military intervention in Panama and Kuwait, Clinton on the Lewinsky scandal, Obama on healthcare reform and the Iraq drawdown, and dozens more. Reagan’s speech the evening of the Challenger disaster is my first real political memory of paying attention to a president, and a formative experience in breaking news and the role of president as leader of the country in times of trial.
The practice has fallen out of favor somewhat for various reasons. Aids to President Obama frequently cited their preference to have a more dynamic setting, as they felt sitting at the Resolute desk hindered his speaking style and personal charisma. But there are more than stylistic reasons for the address losing its impact. Television is now only one of many mediums from which people get their news. President Trump is famous for his tweeting, sending out multiple messages directly to the public practically any time he wishes. Streaming has changed viewing habits, making a family gathering around a television for their president to inform them seem quaint and outdated. Plus most folks have in their hand a phone that can quickly search for virtually any answer anytime they want it on any topic. Whereas few new about the imminent threat of nuclear war before JFK told them on TV, little if anything President Trump can say in such a setting would be revelatory.
Which brings us to the address President Trump delivered to the nation on Tuesday night. While networks and pundits spent the time before, during, and after on the validity of the claims the President was making as to why he wants “the wall” and the machinations of government shutdown to get it, I was struck by a larger picture thought.
It was mind numbingly boring. So was the Democrats’ response delivered by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Aside from the president’s lack of animation that he usually displays at his MAGA rallies, there was no new information given. Nothing he said hadn’t been tweeted by himself, or spoken by administration officials, or spouted by dozens of surrogates and thousands of like-minded pundits. Stylistically, you can argue over what Trump’s strengths are, but reading a teleprompter isn’t one of them. Same with the right honorable opposition’s rebuttal, which again divulged no new information and had the same dryness that plagued the presidents preceding speech, but with the added awkwardness of a duo both trying to convey expediency on something that had been covered wall-to-wall all day.
And in the previous weeks.
And frankly for several years now.
President Trump was elected in no small part because of his stance on immigration. His pivot to the topic was the turning point in going from novelty candidate that had flirted with the presidency many times before to serious challenger, nominee, and finally president. Good, bad, or indifferent it very much is the issue that brought him to the dance in many of his supporters’ minds. We’ve heard all this for going on 3 years if you count the campaign, and border security is not a new issue. Likewise, the president’s opponents have opposed the same policies the entire time, and other than the twist of the government shutdown — which isn’t novel either as we are having them more frequently — nothing new is coming from them either.
There have been humanitarian disasters in the migration of peoples at the southern border for decades. Border security is a complex issue that will never have a one-size-fits-all answer because thousands of miles of border is not uniform, either in geography or in challenges. The policies of the United States for dealing with immigration have not been seriously addressed in nearly a generation by a congress which is either incapable or unwilling to do politically difficult things on matters such as these that do not have snappy soundbite solutions. It’s hard not to conclude that whatever crisis is occurring at the border today is mostly one of our government’s own making by years of decisions to do little as possible while appearing to care publicly as much as possible. As the government is representative of us, the people, it means it’s a crisis we continually allow by not demanding and holding government accountable for correcting.
That is the crux of why the address Tuesday feels like it lands flat. We already know, we just don’t care enough to do anything about it. So when politicians insist the on-going issue is suddenly an emergency because political and social influence converge to deem it so, somewhere in our collective national conscience we know the truth. The truth is it’s kabuki theater, not for our benefit, not for the benefit of slain innocent victims of criminals here illegally, not for the benefit of migrants that are suffering in the deserts of the southern US, not for the benefit of the country in improving the legal paths of immigration a nation needs to thrive, but for the benefit of only one group.
This president’s first address to the nation and it’s response, then, should be viewed in those terms. It was saying nothing of note in a format designed to seem important, delivered without much conviction because there was none behind it, and accomplishing nothing of consequence. Boring, on a topic that deserves serious, steady consideration and leadership. Or in the presidents vernacular, Sad!