A Tale of Two Speeches

Absorbing the reaction to Donald Trump’s inaugural address yesterday, I thought about a famous passage from Act II of The Tempest. A few of the shipwrecked men are taking stock of their situation on Prospero’s enchanted island. It soon becomes clear that the island appears very different to different characters:

ADRIAN: The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.

SEBASTIAN: As if it had lungs and rotten ones

ANTONIO: Or as 'twere perfumed by a fen.

GONZALO: Here is everything advantageous to life.

ANTONIO: True; save means to live.

SEBASTIAN: Of that there's none, or little.

GONZALO: How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!

ANTONIO: The ground indeed is tawny.

SEBASTIAN: With an eye of green in't.

ANTONIO: He misses not much.

SEBASTIAN: No; he doth but mistake the truth totally.

Friday afternoon, I wrote a brief piece about the inauguration for the Financial Times (requires registration) in which I described Trump’s address as “gracious but plain-speaking.” My, how the readers of the FT disliked that!

To be fair, the legacy media in America hated Trump's speech, too, as did — and this is the more interesting thing — the anti-Trump Right.  The Chicago Tribune described the speech as “raw, angry and aggrieved,” “pugnacious in tone, pitch black in its color.” OK, par for the course. But Andrew Ferguson, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said that “the candidate who campaigned as a sociopath shows signs he may yet govern as one.” (“Sociopath”? Caligula was a sociopath. Donald Trump?) Sure, Chris “Old Reliable” Matthews, ready as ever with the Godwin Expedient, described the speech as “Hiterlian.” But just about every mainstream outlet from The Weekly Standard on down referred to the speech as “dark.” I was a bit taken aback to hear a politically mature friend describe the speech as “disgusting,” “nasty,” “borderline unAmerican” and then go on, listing Godwinwards, to invoke “beer halls” (you know what that means!) in connection with the speech.

So what do you think, is the ground tawny? Or does the ground look lush and lusty?

I said that Trump’s speech was gracious.  Here’s how he began:

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.

“Raw”? “Angry”? “Nasty”? “Disgusting”?

Granted, that was merely the prelude. The rest of the short speech (it was only about 1400 words) is  what I called “plain-speaking.” Trump negotiated the transition from gracious prelude to forthright substance with the word “however”:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.