President Trump: polished

On 6 July in Warsaw President Trump delivered a speech to the people of Poland.

It was greeted in general by the press in the USA and UK with a warmth that was rather luke. That’s not a surprise: Trump Derangement Syndrome has become so modish among the chattering classes that it even has a name – that one. A few minutes research through the English language sections of the Polish press yields a very different story: they lurved the speech.

Why don’t we have a look for ourselves?

We join it in the middle of joyful chants of “Donald Trump”, before a wreath-laying ceremony which itself is followed by a brief speech by the First Lady. I have seen this described as ‘predictable schmooze’, though I reckon its actual existence is unpredictable. I have failed to find in my memory another FLOTUS speech under these circumstances. It is competently delivered, contains a little meat in the schmooze, and I doff my hat to her for it.

After more chanting of his name, POTUS begins at the six-minute mark.

The sound on this video suffers from sporadic bursts of very loud amongst long periods of rather quiet. I believe that this is caused by Automatic Volume Control. AVC can be a blunt instrument that worries during big pauses and winds itself up to look for sound in the silence. Added to that, I think it has been programmed also to adjust the volume on the ‘atmos’ microphones that are supposed to feed us the audience response. Audience applauds, POTUS pauses, microphone system has panic attack trying to catch up with what is happening, POTUS starts speaking again, and blasts our eardrums. I comfort myself that though we are getting our feed of his voice from the same microphone as the audience they are unlikely to share our volume craziness.

He is using AutoCue, or equivalent. Even before we spot the perspex screens, we know that this speech is one of those which absolutely has to be scripted. Very soon after he starts we also get glaring confirmation at 7:35 when he has to correct himself. Having said “sincere” he tells us that he means “sincerely”. No one says the former when they mean the latter, so he has to be reading. If reading and the script scrolls up too slowly and the last syllable is on the next line the mistake is easy. I reckon the error comes from the AutoCue operator, which I mention only because that is very rare indeed. They tend to be brilliantly skilled. The smoothness with which Trump makes the correction is also skilled. He is only a minute-and-a-half in, and already in complete control.

The early part of the speech is more diplomatic schmoozing – how could it be otherwise? There’s a warm moment when he names Lech Walesa who is in the audience and stands for a bow. But as the speech progresses the subject matter gets more purposeful. What I particularly like is the judicious mixture of that which is spoken for the benefit of the onlooking world and that which is aimed at his immediate audience.

One device he uses to achieve this is by expressing a link between the two countries as co-representatives of the free West. Poland is one of the European countries that has paid its agreed share of the cost of NATO, and now is resisting huge pressure from Brussels to take a proportion of the gigantic influx of migrants – or, to put it another way, bail Merkel out of her madness. Poland is accustomed to huge pressure, and Trump goes out of his way to itemise some of the many ways it has been tossed on stormy seas over the centuries only for its spirit to triumph.

The speech gets very powerful at 18:50, talking of Soviet occupation, leading to his recounting the holding of a Mass in Victory Square on 2 June 1979 by Pope John Paul II. He culminates in a spellbinding moment where he speaks of the million in that square who “did not ask for wealth, did not ask for privilege”. They wanted God.

He goes on to highlight the inroads of those who would destroy what western civilisation has achieved. This is another wonderfully powerful section, not least because of his referring not only to the threat of the enemy from without but also the enemy within. This section alone would make this speech a triumph, because – script or no – he gets firmly in the driving seat of his message and presses the throttle.

For his peroration he swings at 36:00 into an account of Jerusalem Avenue in the Warsaw Uprising. I doubt there’s a soul in that audience that does not know the story, but won’t mind hearing it again – particularly while the whole world is listening. The final auxesis comes out through more chanting of “Donald Trump” and is greeted by a standing ovation which is very definitely not a hollow formality.

That’s a bloody good speech!

Donald Trump is not everyone’s cup of tea. Though he may have flaws, he loves his country, what it has achieved and what it stands for; and that’s unfashionable among the self-regarding, self-appointed elite in the USA. But what they particularly can’t forgive is that so do the electorate that made him President.

 

Gareth Porter fascinates to distraction

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition. Nikolai Tolstoy then added a well conceived historical and constitutional context.

The next speaker was the American author and journalist, Gareth Porter.

The first impression is the complete absence of paper. He will shoot from the hip; and accordingly I mark him as knowing what he’s doing.

We might expect his arguments in favour of the proposition to be that of a pacifist., but immediately he puts us right. He lays out his stall as being not a pacifist but a realist. He will address this issue not in the abstract, but through analysing specifically the merits of the current conflicts and those we can reasonably expect to emerge in the coming decade.

The audience will have been supplied with his potted biography, which I suspect is more of a bibliography – he has published several books on the subject of war. He fleshes out this ethos by explaining how he graduated from college just before America entered the Vietnam War. In his own words –

Being of draft age powerfully concentrates the mind.

That was why he became a student of American militarism; and now watches as that same militarism has caused the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes involved in these conflicts, he says, are much greater than the news media and our governments have allowed us to know. He believes the threat to the American and British people is as great as that from Nazi Germany. So he lays out his arguments quietly and soberly. It is arresting, alarming stuff. And yet…

I repeatedly find myself thinking tangentially. My mind shoots off in its own direction, causing me often to have to scroll back to where he lost me. I suspect it will also happen with you.

It is an easy, common, but wrong assumption that if this happens to your audience you must be boring them. More often, as in this case, he says fascinating things that trigger lively constructive thoughts that whisk me away somewhere. Porter is being a victim of his own success, stimulating me so much that I miss important stuff. The audience in that hall could not scroll back as I did, so they would forever have lost important portions of his speech. What is to be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes. There are several devices that hook and retain an audience’s attention without the necessity of watering down that stimulus. It amounts to a judicious mixture of structure and a few devious tricks. Essentially, though Porter has mastered the speaker’s key skill of speaking spontaneously without notes and he exercises it with expressive and inventive turns of phrase, he hasn’t mastered a speaker’s (as distinct from writer’s) structure rules. How I’d like a quiet hour’s conversation with Gareth Porter!

It’s a good speech, an important speech. I was glad every time I scrolled back.