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Sunday Political Brunch: A Tale of Two Presidents—August 27, 2017

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Mark Curtis

My political road trip in the past week took me to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and then back to West Virginia. Along the way, I watched a number of President Trump's speeches, and I was left with the impression that this is “A Tale of Two Presidents.” Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“A Tale of Two Presidents” – As the story begins, “It was the best of times; it was the weirdest of times.” Okay, pardon me for improvising the classic Charles Dickens line. But I watched President Trump deliver a very “Presidential” address Monday night about Afghanistan. He was calm, but firm, methodical and logical. That he admitted that he departed from his normal decision-making process and previously-held positions showed humility and the ability to be reflective and flexible. It had a Presidential elegance. The next night, at a campaign rally in Phoenix, he seemingly had an out-of-body experience. It was stark and just odd. I kept wondering, “Is this the same man I watched the night before?”

“Déjà Vu” – As jarring as this disparate display was, it wasn’t the first of its kind. The previous week, the President gave three very different statements on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. On that Saturday, he condemned a “display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” After a short pause, he repeated the line, “On many sides.” It looked and sounded like an ad-libbed departure from his actual script, and it brought a wrath of criticism. On Monday, he gave a much more measured speech, using a teleprompter at the White House. “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The next day he had a combative news conference and was back with his “many sides” line that inflamed passions once again.

“Staying on Message” – In the campaign of 1992 and in the early days of President Bill Clinton’s administration, top officials often used the phrase, “Staying on message!” It was their mantra for dealing with a very undisciplined Clinton, who was prone to be so chatty and candid, that he often talked himself into controversy. Their goal was to have a bumper-sticker mentality to their campaign themes. They wanted to keep it memorable and brief; and - most of all - they strove for consistency in their messages. It wasn’t always successful with the verbose Clinton, but it was a wise strategy.

“Congressional Relations” – The most difficult place for dealing with the President’s mixed messages appears to be in the halls of Congress. His most stark messages are when he lashes out at members of his own party when legislation fails or things just don’t go right. This week I spoke about that very dynamic with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “What is unusual about this is that the President does take the opportunity to jab his own party a bit more - as in a lot more - than most sitting Presidents do when they are frustrated with their own party. And that does present challenges; but at the same time, we want to go the same place. The President wants to put people back to work. We, as a party - Republicans - want to put people back to work; into wages and jobs where they see a good future,” Capito said. Well they failed on the Obamacare repeal; we’ll see how tax reform goes next.

“Haley’s Comet” – While in South Carolina I thought a lot about former Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC), who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Long before President Trump made his “fire and fury” comments about North Korea’s nuclear missile testing, Ambassador Haley was the first to offer tough words. “The time for talk is over,” said Haley on July 31. She has also spoken forcefully about recent troubles with Iran and Venezuela. Haley is 45 years old, a two-term Governor, and a rising star on the national scene. If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs before serving a full term, Haley may be the logical successor. Further down the road, I think she has a shot at the White House. You heard it here first!

“The Importance of Accuracy” – I’ve been in the media forty years, and there is nothing more sacred and important in our business than accuracy. Getting the facts straight is challenging, and the facts can never be scrutinized enough. But we also expect accuracy from the people we cover. President Trump made two grossly-inaccurate statements in his Phoenix speech. First, he said the TV crews were turning off their cameras so as not to cover him and his remarks. "Look back there, the live red lights. They're turning those suckers off fast out there. They're turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I'm saying tonight,” Trump said. I watched CNN and switched back and forth with Fox and other networks. No one stopped their broadcast. He also said the media edited out remarks from his Tuesday speech on Charlottesville. "Did they report that I said racism is evil? You know why? Because they are the dishonest media." In truth, most networks carried that speech live, including the “racism is evil” remarks.

“Why All of This Matters?” – I like President Trump from the vantage point that he is one of the most fascinating political figures I’ve ever covered. He generates headlines and copy – whether you agree with him or not. I’m not here to endorse or condemn his policies; I’m here to cover the news he generates. One of the things I’ve learned over the years of covering politics is that communications need to be clear and consistent. Mixed messages from politicians can confuse the public and erode support for the politicians' agenda. I honestly thought the appointment of General John Kelly as White House Chief-of-Staff would lead to a more disciplined White House. In some respects, the jury is still out. But with a President prone to spontaneous and provocative tweets, mixed messages are more likely to be the rule, rather than the exception.

What are your thoughts after seven months of the Trump Presidency? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is a nationally-known political analyst and author. He is the Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia.


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