Remember when Toronto Mayor John Tory schooled CBS for excluding the Toronto Raptors from its NBA poll? If not, I don’t blame you. It was a quieter time, when Trump’s candidacy still seemed like a hilarious, not-so-elegant prologue to a beige, yet stable Clinton administration. Journalists had fewer leaks and resignations to report than they do now, so the story of a Canadian city mayor taunting an American TV network was still considered news. Canadians loved it, mostly because people from elsewhere think we’re America’s well-meaning but superfluous brother living in the cold, Antarctic attic.
Tory’s letter, on the other hand, made it clear that Canadians could be “sassy.” News outlets applauded his wit. One reporter referred to Tory’s response as “legendary” and contrasted his rhetorical skill with former Mayor Rob Ford who famously told the nation on live TV that “he had more than enough to eat at home.” If you don’t know what was on the Ford menu, google it now, because the visible horror of then CP24 reporter, Katie Simpson lives on in every one of us. The point is, Mayor John Tory’s letter made him seem more relatable, even likable.
And he didn’t write a word of it. I mean, is anyone convinced that Mayor John Tory sat at his computer one evening and painstakingly crafted a clever, thinly-veiled rebuke of CBS? The guy who allowed himself to be filmed in an awkwardly misogynistic Kanye video, dressed like 2006 Justin Timberlake? Sorry, J.T. senior – I don’t buy it.
I only mention this because I had the same experience Wednesday morning when I saw the hashtag #presidential trending on social media. The night before, Donald Trump had addressed Congress for the first time and his performance had galvanized his base. Conservative news outlets said he finally seemed “up to the challenge of being President.” He had undergone a “transformation.” The word “heroic” was thrown in for good measure.
What’s more surprising? His critics loved the speech too. Even CNN’s Van Jones who suggested that “that thing you just saw [Trump] do” would make him a two-term president. “[H]e did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became President of the United States.”
It’s safe to say that we’re living in a weird time right now, where up is down, alt-right is left, a climate change denier heads the EPA, and billionaire Betsy Devos is still out there somewhere looking for pencils. But Donald Trump, seen by Republicans and Democrats alike as presidential? What mass delusion was this?
I watched his address that afternoon, and it was heavy on promises and light on policy. At times it felt long. A little flat. Beige. The media was right – those were the ambiguously sly remarks of a career politician, and they struck a surprisingly non-partisan tone. I’ll be the first to admit it – Donald Trump’s speechwriter is pretty presidential.
Trust me – I’d like to live in a world where President Trump not only wrote but believed his own speech – I’d sleep easier if he did – but “that thing you saw Donald Trump do” was speak in complete sentences for the very first time. He rejected his instinct to adlib. He read someone else’s words from a teleprompter and, if we’re setting the presidential bar at “reading,” I’d like to point you to a classroom of six year olds who are learning to be “presidential” at this very moment.
Look, it’s no secret that politicians use gifted writers to shape their public image. First Lady Michelle Obama has delivered remarks that are grounded and inspiring, even beautiful thanks to speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”- isn’t that one most of the powerful, elegant, yet simple sentences you’ve ever read? And what about President Barrack Obama’s famous call to action: “America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes We Can.’” This is the work of Cody Keenan. It’s so brilliant I’m jealous, and it reinforced our belief that Obama was a visionary leader. Trump isn’t alone – they all do it. Even the Obamas.
But their speeches were never meant to be transformative in the way that Donald Trump’s speech was meant to be transformative. An Obama speech reinforced their public personas – warm, optimistic, approachable. Donald Trump’s address was an identity overhaul. Donald Trump’s only job on Tuesday was to leave Donald Trump behind – thin-skinned, inarticulate, incendiary; the kind of guy you refuse to sit next to at a dinner party because he’s unapologetically racist, misogynistic, homophobic and, let’s face it, a little handsy.
You can’t really blame the President or his staff. If that was your public image, you’d have a team of writers invent a new character for you too – restrained, on-message, almost dull, but definitely someone to be trusted with nuclear launch codes.
You have to give them credit – speechwriters hold a powerful post. They construct personas, shape political legacies, and win public trust, but they don’t make policy decisions that affect you and me. We’re at the mercy of politicians who outsource their personalities. Donald Trump: presidential. John Tory: mayoral, sassy. Without writers, who would they be? Just some guy on live TV raving about how much [—–] he eats at home.