One speech doesn't erase Trump's campaign of hate

Schumer: Trump talks one way and does another
Schumer: Trump talks one way and does another

    JUST WATCHED

    Schumer: Trump talks one way and does another

MUST WATCH

Schumer: Trump talks one way and does another 01:06

Story highlights

  • John McTernan: Trump is like the arsonist who sets fire to your house, then offers to help
  • Trump hailed as modern-day Demosthenes for modestly competent speech, he says

John McTernan is a former speechwriter for ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In politics, language is a legacy. Politicians who understand this employ great speechwriters and pay close attention to the words that they use.

Think of Ted Sorensen's work for President John F. Kennedy or Peggy Noonan's for President Ronald Reagan. They produced linguistic tropes and passages that echo down the decades. Their language still inspires and reminds us that if the presidency is, in Teddy Roosevelt's words, a "bully pulpit," it can, like all pulpits, be a source of lasting inspiration and optimism.
President Donald Trump, too, has become known for his language -- but for a very different reason. His stump speeches on the campaign trail were famously rambling and unstructured.
    His main method of communication both as a candidate and as President has been Twitter. The 140-character form has produced many phrases that have since passed into common usage such as "sad!" and "fake news." Poetic phrases that will be an inspiration for the ages, these are not.
    The incoherence of the campaign trail followed Trump into the presidency, mutating into what was virtually a self-parody -- see the epic press conference where he answered all questions with the depth of his own tweets.
    But suddenly, if you believe the coverage of his speech to both houses of Congress, Trump has found his voice. And it is -- we are told -- an eloquent, statesmanlike one.
    Now, hold on a minute. Someone is being played here.
    It has long been an unspoken law of politics that if you can't do great things then you should lower public expectations.
    All that Trump likely did was get a competent speechwriter to give him a script -- which he then read near enough word-for-word, apart from that off-the-cuff, self-aggrandizing and frankly weird remark about NATO spending.
    After nearly two years of incoherence from Trump, the bar is so low that Tuesday's modestly competent speech has him hailed as a modern-day Demosthenes.
    trump address to congress 4
    trump address to congress 4

      JUST WATCHED

      Trump: We stand united against hate

    MUST WATCH

    Trump: We stand united against hate 01:05
    On one hand, this is probably little more than the payoff for a longer PR effort -- creating a sense of national relief that the President isn't as shockingly ineloquent as he once seemed makes him look good.
    On the other, he has once again managed his most characteristic trick -- by getting us to focus on process, we ignore content. Outrageous content.
    In his speech, the President made a clarion call of unity in the United States. Who, one should ask, could be responsible more for the division in America and the lowering of the tone around the glove than Donald Trump, both as candidate and President?
    Even during this unifying speech, he launched a thinly veiled attack on immigrants with his announcement that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish an office called VOICE -- Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. No, you're right that doesn't make sense in the English language -- it's an acronym created so that Trump could say: "We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored."
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    The spirit of Trump's speech was that of the arsonist who sets fire to your house and then offers to help you save some of the furniture. He hopes that, as in the world of soap operas, plot twists can erase the past, so the world of politics will forget all his previous deeds and words.
    That is not how it works, particularly in the digital world with copies of everything he has said in circulation.
    Language is a legacy -- and Trump's will be phrases such as "bad hombres" rather than the hollow words we heard Tuesday.