In advance of President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, I reached out to Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s lead speechwriter, for his thoughts on what the current White House occupant should — and will — say. (Gerson is now a columnist at The Post.) Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
FIX: You’ve watched Trump give speeches — at campaign rallies, the inauguration etc. — for months now. What do you make of him as a speech giver? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Gerson: Trump is always caught on the horns of a rhetorical dilemma. When he is extemporaneous, he is incoherent. When he goes from a text, he is very uncomfortable. And so, often, he will slide into a cringe-worthy mix of the two, riffing off things in his remarks as though he has never seen them before. His greatest rhetorical strength is the appearance of authenticity. His greatest weakness is a conception of authenticity that excuses a lack of careful thought, preparation and craft.
FIX: What’s the best speech you’ve seen Trump give? The worst?
Gerson: This is honestly not a good question for me to answer. I love well-crafted rhetoric and I have never seen Trump practice it. He seems to believe that whatever is off the top of his head plumbs the depths of any topic. He is the living, riffing embodiment of anti-rhetoric.
FIX: As a speechwriter, how would you approach writing for Trump? And how different is that from how you approached writing for George W. Bush?
Gerson: Tonally, Trump has given the most downbeat and negative convention speech and inaugural address in recent history. And this is for a reason. He has to create a mood of crisis to assert that his strong-hand leadership is the only answer. If he doesn’t argue that murderous illegal immigrants are flooding into the country (they aren’t), and that refugees are about to kill us all (they aren’t) and that America is a nightmare run into the ground by losers (it isn’t), how does he make his case? Every time, Team Trump has claimed that the “big speech” will be uplifting. But it can’t be if Trump is somehow the nation’s answer. So urging Trump to inspire would require a different leader. I can confidently predict that Trump will not end his speech the same way Bush did in his 2001 budget speech, with the Spanish phrase “Juntos podemos”: “Together we can.”
FIX: What sort of speech would you advise Trump to deliver? And how far is that from the speech you expect him to deliver?
Gerson: A president’s first speech to Congress is a budget priority speech. It should be judged by the clarity and realism of a new leader’s agenda. But Trump has an impossible problem of his own making. He is promising massive spending on the military, infrastructure and a border wall. He wants to decrease taxes. He refuses to touch entitlements (hanging Speaker Paul Ryan out to dry). This leaves only discretionary spending, which Congress will not allow to take a 30 or 40 percent cut. Discretionary spending is what members of Congress mostly do — it is help for low-income students, or programs for the disabled, or meds for children with AIDS in Africa, or medical research at NIH. The Trump budget — which is so far only the barest outlines of a budget — is the GOP stereotype on steroids. Take from the poor to give to the military. Trump will be defending a budget, as far as I can tell, [that] is unrealistic, cruel and obscene. And that isn’t an easy speech to write.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “The most memorable line of Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday night should be _____________.” Now, explain.
Gerson: “The budget can not be, will not be, balanced on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.”
I wish he would say these words precisely because I know he can’t and won’t. He seems to be proposing massive cuts in the one area of the budget that can’t afford it, which would exact a terrible human cost. That is impractical, immoral — and typical.