Andrew Feinberg, The Independent
Just before 9pm on Wednesday, Donald Trump was preparing to address the nation from behind the English Oak desk that Queen Victoria had made from the timbers of HMS Resolute for President Rutherford B Hayes in 1880.
Over the 140 years it has been in the White House’s collection, it has become synonymous with the presidency itself, and, since the advent of radio and television, it has acquired a historical weight that goes far beyond the 1,000 pounds at which it tips the scales.
It’s where presidents have sat as Americans have invited them into their homes at times of crisis and in times of triumph.
Franklin D Roosevelt sat behind it as he assured Americans that their money would be safe during the bank holiday he ordered upon assuming office in 1933; when he signed the declaration of war with Japan on December 9, 1941; and when he told Americans that US forces had begun the process of liberating Europe in June 1944.
When Harry Truman took FDR’s place less than a year later, he used an Oval Office address to reassure the American people, many of whom had known no other president, and later on, to announce the surrenders of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in May and September of 1945.
And whether it was Eisenhower speaking on the need to send federal troops to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, Lyndon B Johnson consoling Americans after the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy, Nixon resigning, Reagan comforting the children of America after the Challenger disaster, or George W Bush reassuring a frightened country after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the image of a president behind that iconic piece of office furniture has defined America’s tragedies and triumphs for more than a century.
It was that archetype of American leadership which Donald Trump sought to evoke when he took his place before the cameras on Wednesday night. Television technicians adjusted their focus, and the networks flashed “special report” graphics on their screens. But as a sound technician clipped a microphone to the president’s tie, the first words he spoke fell well short of the mark set by his predecessors. “Ah f*ck. Uh oh. I got a pen mark,” said the 45th President of the United States, who asked those present if anyone had a wipe or some “white stuff” to hide the stain on his shirt.
Things went downhill from there.
After describing the virus which has sickened people in almost every state as a “foreign virus” (as if it was taking the job of a hard-working, law-abiding American pathogen), and boasting that his administration had conducted most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus “in modern history,” Trump announced that he would be signing an order “suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.”
But after he’d finished speaking, in what might be a first for a presidential Oval Office address, members of his administration began immediately walking back what he’d said.
Instead, White House officials said that cargo transport would not be suspended, permanent US residents would be exempt from the restrictions, and the travel ban itself would only apply to the Schengen Area in which free movement between countries is permitted.
Insurance companies also had to clarify that their negotiations with the White House had been about the cost of testing, not treatment. The stock markets reacted (and are still reacting) badly, to say the least.
Michael Waldman, who wrote more than 2,000 speeches as President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1999, was aghast at the haphazard nature of Trump’s attempt at presidential-level oratory.
“I am having a hard time remembering a speech that was more counterproductive than that one,” said Waldman, now director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. “For a president to use an Oval Office address at a time of national emergency to put out policy announcements that were wrong and repudiated by his own administration within minutes boggles the mind.”
Crooked Media co-founder Tommy Vietor, who served in the Obama administration as a national security spokesperson, said the mistakes in Trump’s prepared remarks were “inexcusable.”
But because 2020 is an election year, Americans who found themselves aghast by Trump’s Oval Office star turn got a look at an alternative less than 24 hours later, when former Vice President Joe Biden appeared behind a lectern at a Wilmington, Delaware hotel to address the crisis that has already caused unprecedented disruptions to American life.
At the outset of his speech — the point where Trump had offered boasts and tried to assign blame — Biden offered Americans something they had not seen since January 2017: a glimpse at a consoler-in-chief.
“I know people are worried, and my thoughts are with all those who are directly fighting this virus — those infected, families that have suffered a loss, our first responders and healthcare providers who are putting themselves on the line for others. And I’d like to thank those who are already making sacrifices to protect us — whether that’s self-quarantining or cancelling events or closing campuses,” Biden said. “Because whether or not you are infected, or know someone who is infected, or have been in contact with an infected person, this will require a national response. Not just from our elected leaders or our public health officials — from all of us.”
“We all must follow the guidance of health officials and take appropriate precautions — to protect ourselves, and critically, to protect others, especially those who are most at risk from this disease,” he continued, adding later that his campaign — unlike Trump’s — would be cancelling large public events until advised that it is safe for such gatherings to resume by a committee of experts his campaign has assembled. “We will be led by the science,” he declared.
Joe Lockhart, who served as Bill Clinton’s press secretary during his 1999 impeachment trial, said Biden’s address provided Americans with a “stark contrast” to the incumbent president.
“He had concrete ideas on testing, how to help the displaced and making this a global effort, and most of all no one is going to have to clean up for him after this speech,” he said. “In short, he looked like a president.”
Veteran Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins concurred with Lockhart’s assessment.
“That’s what a president looks like — it was factual, it was concise, it was sober, and it’s what the American people needed to hear,” he said.
And it wasn’t just Democrats who were impressed with Biden’s performance. One former Republican elected official who cut his teeth in the Tea Party movement but asked to remain anonymous for fear of harassment from his former colleagues put it succinctly: “Biden f***ing became president today.”
Another ex-Tea Party Republican wasn’t shy about speaking on the record about the events of the past 24 hours.
Joe Walsh, the Illinois ex-Congressman who recently attempted to challenge Trump in the GOP primary, predicted that Trump’s disastrous speech and Biden’s response would be remembered as an inflection point which boosted the former VP’s chances of occupying the Oval Office at this time next year.
“Trump’s sh*tty response to this pandemic paved the way for a guy like Biden to stand in front of the American people today and just reassure people and calm them,” he said. “That’s something Trump is just incapable of doing.”
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