President Ronald Reagan did not “wing it” as he overlooked the rocky bluffs of Pointe du Hoc, offering praise to D-Day heroes and inspiration to a nation still haunted by Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy did not toss aside his prepared speech when he stood at the Berlin Wall and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Neither did America’s notoriously undisciplined president last week, who used his time at Normandy to offer words of assurance to the same allies that he spent his first years in the White House provoking.
President Trump drew praise from editorial writers and thought leaders across the political spectrum for a D-Day address that temporarily soothed the nerves of NATO allies and foreign policy analysts alike. The president’s belligerence toward America’s most faithful democratic partners was notably absent on the 75th anniversary of the historic military invasion. And it’s all right to admit it: This is a good thing.
The best orators employ speechwriters and teleprompters for a reason. During occasions such as last week’s ceremony, America’s reputation depends on its president choosing words with both care and eloquence. Trump critics understandably dismissed positive headlines accompanying his Normandy speech and scoffed that the president had done little more than read a script written by a staff member. But even Trump’s detractors should recognize that the object of their contempt has proved more than any politician before him that rhetorical restraint is indeed a precious commodity.
U.S. prestige suffered after Trump’s Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, when the president admitted to a watching world that he had less faith in his intelligence chiefs than in the cynical assurances of a former KGB agent. The president also did his country few favors by dismissing Germany ahead of last year’s NATO summit as “captive to Russia” and accusing other allies of being “delinquent.”
Like many, I consider the Normandy American Cemetery hallowed ground. I was saddened by the president’s use of the sunlit white crosses there as a backdrop to attack his political enemies on Fox News. But that offensive performance was not repeated later in the morning when French President Emmanuel Macron met Trump onstage as the world watched. In that moment, the commander in chief was effusive in his praise for British fortitude, Canadian honor, the fighting Poles, the intrepid Aussies and the valor of the French.
It may not have been Churchillian, but then again, Trump was not steeling a beleaguered nation against the horrors of Nazi bombardment. In the early-morning hours of June 6, 2019, the U.S. president did all that the moment called for. He read his speech.
Forgive Democrats for being less than impressed by their nemesis’s reading skills. But they should not forget that their ability to dislodge The Donald from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. next year may depend upon a certain Scranton, Pa., native doing the same. Considering that Joe Biden, the Democrats’ best hope for 2020, has a checkered past as a candidate for national office, his supporters can only hope that when the former vice president gets on stage, he smiles for the crowd, reads his speech and exits stage left, waving as he goes. That is because Biden has proved himself uniquely challenged in going off script, taking 20 minutes to answer a question and causing himself and his staff unnecessary political grief.
In fact, Biden’s successful campaign launch in 2020 owes much to his newfound political discipline. Until last week’s flip-flop on abortion funding, the Democratic front- runner kept his most loquacious instincts in check. If he can restrain himself for 16 more months, Biden is likely to be our 46th president.
If you think I am trying to send Biden a message with this column, you are correct. Too much is riding on next year’s election for any Democratic candidate to shoot from the hip rhetorically. America’s future will likely be left in the hands of whichever 70-something politician sticks most closely to the script that is handed to him.
Such lowered expectations may be a good thing for American politics. Throughout the 21st century, voters have discounted the value of competence and opted instead for disruption. But what the United States needs now is a president who balances budgets, protects our shores, adopts a restrained foreign policy and can work with people who do not belong to their political party. Such cooperation is made more difficult by electing politicians whose cable-news hits and social media rants do more to divide than inspire. How wonderful it would be to once again have leaders who think about what they are going to say, write it down, edit it and practice saying it out loud before lurching to create the next viral moment.
The chaos of this particular time calls for mindfulness. Americans at home and friends abroad want to again look to the United States for calm, resolute leadership. For a few brief moments last week, Trump did his job. He stuck to the script. And as Post columnist David Ignatius reminded me during our broadcast from Normandy, Napoleon defined a brilliant general as “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.”
In these crazy days, “average” might just be a welcome change.