Two Branches, Two Leaders, Two Speeches to Adolescent Boys

by Michael Dorf

The warp-speed news cycle has moved on, but I want to linger a bit over what now seems like ancient history: President Donald Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree two weeks ago. I shall contrast Trump's speech with one the previous month to a similar (albeit smaller) crowd: The ninth-grade commencement address that Chief Justice John Roberts delivered at the Cardigan Mountain school, where his son Jack was among the graduates. The Roberts speech was everything that the Trump speech wasn't: self-deprecating; well-crafted; compassionate; and wise. The contrast tells us something profound about the differences between the men who respectively head the judicial and executive branches of our national government.

Readers who are pressed for time may wish to read a transcript of the Roberts speech, but I recommend watching and listening to it in full. (It begins at the 5:45 mark and lasts just over 12 minutes.)

Meanwhile, a transcript of Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree can be found here. You can watch and listen to the full speech here, but I won't embed the video for fear that the inanity would crash the blog.

Because of the nature of the adult-gives-speech-to-adolescents genre, the two speeches contain parallels. The contrasts within those parallels are striking.

1) After Roberts invites the graduates to show their gratitude to their parents and guardians, he humbly jokes that now he can say that his remarks were "interrupted by applause."

Trump disavows politics and then spends about half of his speech talking about politics. He brags about his unexpected electoral victory in the upper Midwest and takes credit for the Wall Street bull market.

2) Roberts advises the graduates to treat everyone respectfully. He says:
you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it. When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.
Trump talks about the "forgotten people" who voted for him, but not for the purpose of saying how such people are worth caring about. On the contrary, at one point he jokingly threatens to fire HHS Secretary Tom Price (seated behind him) if Price (who is no longer in Congress but somehow responsible for its votes) fails in stripping health insurance from millions of the forgotten people. Trump remembers the forgotten people not for their sake but only for the purpose of boasting about his electoral victory. 

3) Roberts unpacks the cliche "be yourself" by telling the graduates that this does not mean not to improve but to contemplate their values and how to live them.

Trump tells the Boy Scouts that they should find work that they love (admittedly good advice, though not always possible), which will ensure success (obviously false as to some of the audience but hyperbole common to the genre), and then says he loves being president, an example of someone loving his job. Rather than close the loop, however, Trump then remembers that he is the president, which distracts him from the point he was making and--of course--leads to his boasts about the election and the economy.

4) Roberts comes closest to an off-color remark when he says to the crowd at the all-boys school who will now be moving on to other schools "most of you will be going to a school with girls," then pauses and adds "I have no advice for you." The audience laughs and Roberts moves on. As the father of two teenage girls, I wish Roberts had said something more like "treat the girls with respect; you are as alien to them as they may seem to you." This was, I suppose, the low point of the Roberts speech, but it was clearly intended only as a bit of self-deprecating humor and was received that way. This Roberts low point was miles above the highest point of Trump's Boy Scouts speech.

To wit: Trump's off-color tale. He tells a rambling story about the developer William Levitt, who sold his business
for a tremendous amount of money. And he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won't go any more than that, because you're Boy Scouts so I'm not going to tell you what he did.
Trump then teases the crowd for a few moments as he contemplates completing the story. One can see the gears spinning inside Trump's head as he decides whether to describe what one imagines are cocaine-fueled orgies aboard Levitt's yacht. In a rare display of good judgment, Trump chooses not to go there explicitly, settling for some further lecherous innuendo.

5) Much of the media attention to the Trump Boy Scouts speech has focused on the inappropriateness of the political boasting and the thinly veiled sexual nature of the Levitt story, but I want to focus on what comes next in the Levitt tale. Before doing so, however, let's consider what may be the best passage in the Roberts speech. He says:
Now the commencement speakers will typically . . . wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Trump's speech contains something similar--but it is also, of course, wholly different. After leaving Levitt on his yacht, Trump tells the Boy Scouts that years later he finds Levitt sitting alone at a party, apparently depressed about his business having gone badly after he got bored of the orgies and repurchased it. Here's what the actual real-life president of the United States then says:
And [Levitt] explained what was happening and how bad it's been and how hard it's been. And I said, "What exactly happened? Why did this happen to you? You're one of the greats ever in our industry. Why did this happen to you?" And he said, "Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum." A word you never hear when you're talking about success when some of these guys that never made 10 cents, they're on television giving you things about how you're going to be successful, and the only thing they ever did was a book and a tape. But I tell you -- I'll tell you, it was very sad, and I never forgot that moment. And I thought about it, and it's exactly true. He lost his momentum, meaning he took this period of time off, long, years, and then when he got back, he didn't have that same momentum. In life, I always tell this to people, you have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don't have it, that's OK. Because you're going to go on, and you're going to learn and you're going to do things that are great. But you have to know about the word "momentum."
What is Trump trying to say here? Does he mean that if you stop doing something, you can't restart it? Why not? Does he realize that "momentum" is at best a metaphor? And even if there is some truth to what he is trying to say--about the importance of perseverance perhaps--how does knowing about the word momentum help? Does Trump even know what momentum is?

It's tempting to dismiss such questions as pointless and simply pity Trump, whose inability to articulate coherent thoughts seems to be evidence of the early stages of dementia. Even so, we can glean insights into Trump's mind (such as it is) by noting the particular incoherent thoughts he has.

Notice that at the end of the passage above a spark of decency buried deep within Trump's icy soul briefly flickers to light. "And if you don't have" momentum, Trump says, "that's OK." Perhaps Trump thought to himself "wait, some of the kids in this crowd won't be so successful; I should tell them that it's okay if they don't have momentum." So he says that. But then he forgets why he said it and says that they'll be okay because they'll turn out to be winners after all! Why? Because Trump can't imagine that it's okay--in the sense of being a person deserving of self-respect and the respect of others--not to be successful by conventional measures. Spark extinguished, he reverts back to "look at how wonderful I am, don't you want to be like me?".

* * *
The contrast between the Roberts speech and the Trump speech is in a sense preposterous. John Roberts is an extremely accomplished professional. Donald Trump is an ignorant bullying grifter, whose talents, such as they were, are in decline. Of course Roberts gives the better speech by far.

My point, however, is not simply that Trump gave a bad speech. That's obvious--despite the fact that Trump frequently boasts that (unnamed) people have told him that this or the other speech he delivered was the "single greatest" in its category.

Nor is my point one about oratory. The Roberts speech isn't great oratory. He's not Lincoln at Gettysburg or MLK describing his dream. It's a small speech--one that strikes just the right tone for the occasion.

And of course I'm not making a point about anything of substance. I disagree with a fair number of positions Roberts has taken as a justice. I disagree with virtually every policy to come out of the Trump White House. But that has nothing to do with my reactions to these speeches.

So what is the point of this comparison? Simply this: In a little over half a year of the Trump presidency we have become so accustomed to judging Donald Trump on his own unique curve that we can forget to be shocked. Pundits reacted to the Boy Scouts speech by noting that it was inappropriate to give a political speech, especially so when he attacked former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton. That's true. But pointing out the inappropriateness of the Trump Boy Scouts Jamboree speech strikes me as inadequate as an assessment.

Yes, the Trump speech to the Boy Scouts was inappropriate. But it was worse. It was downright indecent. Trump has barely any decency in him. To see that clearly, sometimes it's necessary to contrast him with--not the greatest orator of all time nor a saint--but a grownup professional human being with a sense of decorum. Reading the Roberts and Trump speeches side by side reminds one that Trump does not merely give horrible speeches; he is a horrible person. Pity him if you must, but never forget to be outraged by him.