Mark Shields: False humility is better than none at all
Thanks to the reliable American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which keeps careful track of such information, we know that in 2000, President Bill Clinton gave — at one hour and 28 minutes — the longest State of the Union address. In marked contrast, to deliver his own 1986 State of the Union, President Ronald Reagan took only an estimated 31 minutes. President Donald Trump’s 2018 address, which, according to CBS News research, drew 110 rounds of applause and more than 70 standing ovations, took just over one hour and 20 minutes, making it the second-longest in history.
The reactions to Trump’s speech were mostly predictable. Unsmiling Democrats, many of whom were captured on TV cutaway shots looking as if they were suffering from an outbreak of dyspepsia, were not impressed, while euphoric Republicans appeared to love it. But what most post-mortems of the speech have overlooked were Trump’s own obviously positive reactions to the very speech he was delivering. This was repeatedly evidenced by the president’s enthusiastic willingness to initiate — or to happily join in — applause for the particular point he had just so tellingly made. This, let it be noted, is a genuine presidential first; all of the previous 41 chief executives who gave a State of the Union speech apparently lacked either the self-confidence or the self-sufficiency to be able to do.
If only President Abraham Lincoln had dared, after so eloquently speaking of this “new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” to pause, turn to those in his Gettysburg crowd and urge them to “give it up for all men being created equal!” Isn’t it too bad that President Franklin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address, after testifying to his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” somehow lacked the sense of history to insert “everybody put your hands together”? President John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you (but) what you can do for your country” would have worked so much better if a more self-assured JFK had then instructed his audience, “Let’s have a big hand for self-sacrifice.”
Following the tradition established by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 — when he saluted from the rostrum Lenny Skutnik, who had heroically plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac River to save from certain drowning a woman he did not know who had been on a plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Washington National Airport — President Trump introduced to the nation and saluted several American heroes. Among them were a New Mexico police officer who, with his wife, adopted the infant of a homeless heroin addict, a fire prevention officer with the U.S. Forest Service who saved 62 children and staff members from a camp in a deadly California wildfire, a Marine corporal who lost both legs and his sight from an IED in Iraq and became the first blind double amputee to re-enlist in the Marine Corps, and a Coast Guardswoman who operated a helicopter basket that lifted to safety from the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston a woman who was clinging to four children at once. Unmentioned by the White House or President Trump is that all of these very special Americans, beginning with Lenny Skutnik, were public servants who answered JFK’s challenge to do what they could for their country.
These Americans really have earned a genuine round of our applause.