One of those lines that sounded like it was tapped at the keyboard of a speechwriter with no good ear for Trump’s natural voice: “This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.”
Another was his riff on how “wealthy politicians” build walls around their homes: “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.”
If the prime-time speech was not the most natural format for Trump—no crowd to roar approval, no skeptical reporter to joust with—it must be said that neither was the official response for the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Like Trump, they are both commanding communicators in comfortable settings, fielding questions on Capitol Hill or rallying their caucuses. On Tuesday night, they stood awkwardly side by side, both looking at the camera rather than each other, Pelosi speaking first and then Schumer, neither breaking new ground in their arguments. Twitter exploded with jokes that they looked more like grandpa and grandma lecturing a wayward teenager than the leaders of the opposition.
Cumulatively, both addresses may have been a sign of the times: Perhaps, in the age of TiVo and Netflix, the whole ritual of “stop everything, take a seat on the couch, and give our leaders the respectful hearing they deserve” prime-time addresses is a bit of anachronism. At least under the present circumstances, in which the leaders were not addressing some dramatic new circumstance but simply amplifying the ceaseless partisan volleys they deliver all day in the 12 hours before prime time.
If so, that also suggests the handwringing debates held by traditional broadcast networks—should we accede to the president’s request for air time?—are themselves a bit of an anachronism.
Simply put: Who really cares whether they do or they don’t? The debates about giving presidents a prime-time platform, for speeches or news conferences, flowed from the days when the big networks overwhelmingly commanded the main avenues of public attention.
These days, there are scant few Americans eager to hear from Trump, or any politician, who can not do so through multiple channels, on their living room TVs or smartphones, while making dinner or driving or working or working out, at any hour of the day. No one who cares to hear Trump’s defense of his actions in the shutdown could conceivably be bereft of options. No one who prefers not to hear them could be prevented from instead switching channels to catch up on back episodes of “The Americans.”
Of course, if prime-time Oval Office speeches are an outdated form in the Trump era, so too may be grading them on style points, as this very piece is doing. In a polarized climate, opponents would jeer even eloquence from an unwelcome source; partisans would chant lovingly for public incontinence if delivered on behalf of the home team.
Still, this is a different era for presidential communication, as Trump usually knows better than anyone, and as he forgot for a few clumsy minutes on Tuesday night.