President Trump has received praise for his speech last Tuesday to Congress. Polls have indicated that he sounded “more presidential” in that appearance than at any other previous time. In his campaign speeches, in his tweets, at the Republican Convention and at his inauguration, Trump had often delivered a dark picture of America, and he had often communicated with a fiery tone. His speech to Congress needed to be different, and it was.
But let’s examine some of the words from the early part of that speech; words that helped set the tone for the evening.
Donald J. Trump, address to Congress, February 28, 2017: “Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice ― in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present. The torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”
Now let’s take a look at the words of a former president.
John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, January 20, 1961: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans ... The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it ― and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” We clearly have two quotes, from two different presidents, that look very similar. On the one hand, it has always been acceptable for a public speaker to draw inspiration from others. But, without question, quotes should be attributed and inspirations should be acknowledged.
Who wrote Trump’s speech last week? Was it the same person who wrote Melania Trump’s plagiaristic speech at the Republican Convention? Did Trump feel he could get away with such behavior too?
Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have both stated that Trump himself wrote the speech, but that many of Trump’s aides offered suggestions during the days leading up to the speech. Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Gary Cohn, Reince Preiebus, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Hope Hicks and Spicer are all said to have provided advice for the speech. Surely, at least one of them knew that Trump would essentially be ripping off some of JFK’s phrases.
When one president is quoting or paraphrasing another, to not give that prior president credit is really poor form.
Before that speech to Congress, Trump had often been criticized for his demeanor. Those in Trump’s inner circle undoubtedly wanted him to sound more presidential in his address to Congress. And what could be more presidential – and memorable – than John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address? So, the decision was made by Trump – or by one or more of his people, with Trump’s approval – to use JFK’s phrases. It would, after all, help make Trump sound more presidential — if only for an hour.
Perhaps Trump believed he could get away with it. Perhaps Trump didn’t mention that he was paraphrasing JFK because he was afraid that quoting a Kennedy would result in backlash from his base. Perhaps he feared that critics would remind him of a famous Lloyd Bentsen quote.
Well, I’ll say it now: Donald Trump, you’re no Jack Kennedy.