NEW YORK — The dirty word for describing President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address was “presidential.”
That was what some Trump critics tried to put in the mind of pundits assigned to analyze Tuesday’s address, urging them ahead of time not to be seduced by a smooth speech — an unusual form of “working the refs” that reflects today’s divided times politically.
When the time came to assess the speech, Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace used a different “p” word — powerful. On the same set, Fox’s Juan Williams said he could understand why some Democrats walked out after hearing Trump’s “bellicose” delivery. “Partisan” was the word that came most clearly to mind: pundits were no more successful finding common ground in their analysis than the politicians they cover.
The effort to avoid the term “presidential” stemmed from praise that Trump received for an address before Congress last year. CNN’s Van Jones, NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Wallace used the description to describe a tempered delivery that contrasted with Trump’s caustic campaign-style speeches or tweets. There was a similar dynamic at work when Trump spoke at the world economic forum in Davos recently.
That worried Trump’s critics. Brian Klaas, author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy” tweeted to “gullible pundits” that describing Trump as presidential “makes you look like a moron.”
Columnist Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times wrote that “I’m begging my fellow pundits not to get too excited should Trump manage to read from a TelePrompter without foaming at the mouth or saying anything overtly racist. No matter how well he delivers the lines … he will not become presidential.”
Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now a George Washington University professor, said the effort reflects today’s polarization. But he believes that the advice was good for pundits because it would make them think carefully about what they say.
“Good analysis is important,” he said. “But reflexive commentary doesn’t really add very much.”
Pundits should be free to call things as they see them, said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Republican who went toe-to-toe with Jones on CNN’s set Tuesday night. The calls to avoid the term “presidential” come from people who can’t accept the reality of Trump’s presidency, he said.
“To me, it shows that there are people so fixated on the behavior of this president that they want to ignore all of the things that he and his administration are doing and reduce this presidency to his Twitter feed,” Santorum said.
Santorum said after the speech that Trump’s delivery was disarming, that “he made you feel good as an American.”
Not so fast: On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said that it was clear that Trump did not unify his live audience.
“I think this reality TV president was trying to create a new reality, a new political reality for himself,” said CBS’ Norah O’Donnell. “And he was trying to sort of take a giant eraser to all those really divisive tweets to try and find a new way to communicate with the American people. But it doesn’t erase what has been his record.”
NBC’s Chuck Todd said he didn’t know whether the Donald Trump on display Tuesday would be able to sway Americans, “because you don’t see it very often.”
Those were points the “presidential” critics were hoping for, that they would have to see what happens in the ensuing days to truly judge the impact of Trump’s State of the Union address.
“This is a speech that will not be long remembered,” and Trump’s words will float up like smoke from a fire and vanish, said Steve Schmidt, a GOP strategist, on MSNBC.
“We’ll see the typical recklessness, the looseness, the tweet out of left field that extinguish this moment of supposed normalcy from our minds, I suspect pretty quickly.”
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.