'A Doozy' Of A State Of A Union

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Ji Seong-ho, right, holds up his crutches after being acknowledge by President Donald Trump during Trump's address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Ji Seong-ho, right, holds up his crutches after being acknowledge by President Donald Trump during Trump's address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson talk with Olivier Knox, chief Washington Correspondent for Yahoo! News. They discuss President Trump's first State of the Union speech and compare it to those of Presidents Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They ask how the Democrats should respond and they examine the use of honored guests,  a tradition that began under President Reagan.


Ron Suskind: On Tuesday night, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address and boy it was a doozy! A lot of ground covered, one hour and 20 minutes, if you could sit through the whole thing! He proposes an infrastructure plan that's dramatic and may or may not ever become a reality. There are ideas on immigration. Everything from that to paid parental leave. And God knows a lot of bragging about the economy. So it was interesting watching that speech. I think we're seeing a new reality show character. There are many forms, many shades to the character named Donald Trump. This was a new one. It was one who is trying be "so presidential" as he liked to say during the campaign. Well he kind of was and I think that's what happens in State of the Unions. I think we generally forget what presidents say. But it's a moment where they get to look more presidential than almost any other time other than raising their hand for the oath of office. And in a way for people who are worried about the rolling constitutional crisis that is Donald Trump some of them are even more terrified today because they see he can do that too. He can make people feel like saying "Well, what's the big problem? He gave me what I wanted. I've got my big tax cut and he seemed kind of presidential so I'm now allowed to cheer. You should be cheering too. It's about the deliverables. And so join hands now." That's what I saw when I watched it, terrified the hell out of me.

Heather Cox Richardson: Really? I was not moved by this at all. Donald Trump is a great speaker when he is off script. He is a great speaker, he puts together sentences, incredibly powerfully. You can get behind him even if you disagree with what he's saying. But you put him on a teleprompter and he's boring, he's low energy. He goes on far too long. I thought everybody was going to be asleep before the end of it because he wouldn't stop. You have a president who's on the ropes in terms of the number of people who elected him and how popular he is. He says that he has invented prosperity and the whole country is booming thanks to him. Then he pivoted to his usual stuff which is that immigrants are destroying everything. So, you know, he kind of nodded to his base. The only thing that I saw in it that was new and really scary was when he called for Congress to give cabinet secretaries the power to reward good workers and to get rid of any federal employee that he thought was failing the American people, which takes us right back to the old days of patronage, patronage where you got a job basically because you supported one politician or another. The only thing that I thought was really, really interesting about last night's speech was Melania's white pantsuit!

Olivier Knox: I saw the State of the Union as the opening salvo of the yearlong campaign leading up to the mid-term elections in November. He's going to be talking about the economy, which has continued to grow on his watch after after growing for most of Barack Obama's watch. The Republicans are, I think, doing a better job at making their case than Democrats are right now about about the economy. I think that's a potential problem for Democrats going into November. I did something that I do after every big speech and it's not at all scientific! It's purely anecdotal. I go to look at about 40 pages on Facebook of friends of mine who don't live in D.C., don't live in New York and are only remotely connected to politics. And the really striking thing about their reactions was that, across the spectrum, they liked the speech but they didn't say anything about any of the policies that the president invoked. Instead they focused entirely on the guests who were in Melania Trump's visitors box overlooking the chamber.

Ron Suskind: The so-called Skutniks, right?

Olivier Knox: Right! So in 1982 President Ronald Reagan completely transformed the State of the Union. He invites Lenny Skutnik, who dove into the icy Potomac a couple of weeks earlier to pull people out of the wreckage of an airplane that had crashed into one of the bridges here in D.C. He invites Lenny Skutnik, puts him in a place of honor and refers to him as an exemplar of American heroism.

Ronald Reagan, from the 1982 State of the Union: Just two weeks ago in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest. The heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters and we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees Lenny Skutnik, who when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety. (Applause)

Olivier Knox: It forever transformed the State of the Union because it was such an effective rhetorical and visual device. So in D.C. we call the guests there "the Skutniks". And everybody that I looked at on facebook said "What a great speech. Wow. That North Korean defector!" It wasn't so much a response on policy, no one said "Wow, he called for only giving foreign aid to America's friends. Wow." Now again this is superficial. It's just 40 of my Facebook friends. They do run the political gamut though. And it reinforced something that I thought too during the speech which is that he's a really good casting agent of talent and he found some really, really compelling stories that he could sprinkled throughout his speech. You talked about how people don't remember anything from State of the Union speeches, and I have covered a whole bunch of these, and I'm definitely in that category. I remember, like, four. I don't know but I think this is going to be remembered at least as much for the North Korean defector holding his crutches aloft and smiling as it is for anything that the president said.

Ron Suskind: I agree with you. He took it to a new level. He added more guests. The diversity was quite dramatic and, I thought, ingenious. They all played their roles brilliantly every one of them. And I think that that will be the thing people remember. We talk policy. We're looking for those key policy points but most Americans are not.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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Katherine Brewer Managing Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Katherine Brewer is coordinating producer of podcasts and new programs at WBUR.



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