President Donald Trump tried to make a save Wednesday, prefacing remarks in Missouri about tax cuts with words of supposed support for those in Texas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. “We are here with you today, we are here with you tomorrow, and we will be with you every single day after to restore recover and rebuild,” Trump said, before moving on to talk in vague generalities about taxes.
The timing and location of Trump’s comments on Harvey were particularly odd, given that he was actually in Texas a day before and had the opportunity then to offer aid and comfort to those stricken by the enormous rainfall in southeast Texas. Instead, as usual, Trump whiffed. Instead of being inspirational and uplifting, supportive of the efforts of emergency responders and volunteers, sympathetic to those who lost their lives or homes, the president’s words were empty and cardboard.
Most famously, Trump climbed up a stepladder inside a Corpus Christi firehouse and said, “What a crowd, what a turnout.” He then waved a Texas flag.
The president pledged the full support of the federal government and did say, “This is historic. It’s epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
That’s about as close as Trump came to showing empathy for the millions affected by the storm, some of whom have lost everything. He just can’t seem to find the right words at the proper moment. He excels at hyperbole and noisy adjectives that don’t mean anything. He can use words to market himself and to belittle those he doesn’t like, but not to persuade or inspire.
I used to think it was a matter of Trump not being a good public speaker. Rhetorically, he is an adolescent. Compare him in this category to his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Trump is an infant. While Obama’s words soared and drove people to action, Trump more often uses his as an inarticulate hammer. His words make people angry. That includes, notably, even those who support the president. They often end up angered by the alleged condition of the United States or at certain groups of people living in the U.S.
But not every president has been a strong public speaker. The Bushes, George H.W. and his son George W., were not necessarily eloquent. When needed, though, they could rise to the occasion to rally the nation or reassure those in duress. They had concern, even if they weren’t always perfect at articulating it.
It’s now become clear that words are not the problem with Trump. It’s not that he can’t verbalize his feelings; it’s that he doesn’t have the feelings in the first place.
Trump, it is apparent, is a man wholly without empathy or compassion for others. He doesn’t have the ability, or even the interest, to see beyond himself and his needs to have sympathy for others. He is a man whose first instinct upon visiting an area that has been inundated with record rainfall, where lives have been lost and where billions of dollars in damage has already been done (with much more to come) is to comment on the number of people who came to see him. He is the president without a heart.
One role of the president is to provide aid and comfort in times of distress. The president, any president, has the power to activate the federal government to provide money, material support and manpower to afflicted communities. That is an important aspect. But the mere presence of the president sends an important message, and his words are often used to uplift those who are down and to instill pride into the devastated community. Words matter. Feelings matter.
Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., learned this in 1997. On April 19, large parts of the cities succumbed to flood waters of the Red River and a fire destroyed almost a dozen buildings in downtown Grand Forks. Residents were exhausted, angry, stressed and heartbroken in the immediate aftermath of the devastation. The region was at a low point.
President Bill Clinton visited on April 22 and brought five Cabinet members with him. He toured the damaged areas, sat in a community meeting led by Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens and spoke at the Grand Forks Air Force Base west of the city, in a hangar where hundreds of displaced residents were living.
“It has been a very moving experience,” the president said.
Clinton spoke for about nine minutes, interrupted briefly by an exploding light bulb. Every sentence that passed through the president’s lips had a purpose, every one of his words had meaning. In less than 10 minutes, Clinton let the people of Grand Forks know they had the full power of the federal government to aid in their recovery, but more importantly told them their hard work and courage in the face of adversity had inspired the nation.
“We have hardly ever seen such a remarkable demonstration of courage and commitment and cooperation and basic human strength, and we are very impressed and proud to be Americans when we see what you have done in the face of this natural disaster,” Clinton said.
Clinton did not comment on the size of the crowd or wave a North Dakota flag.
“You have shown that when we think of our duties to one another, our own lives are better,” Clinton said. “We’re all stronger when we try to make sure our friends and neighbors are all safe and strong as well. No matter what you have lost in this terrible flood, what you have saved and strengthened and sharpened and shown to the world is infinitely better and we should be very, very proud of that.”
Clinton had the innate ability to speak to every person in a room, almost individually, and he did that in Grand Forks. He spoke directly to the people of Grand Forks and gave them advice for what was to come. Clinton said he’d been through several natural disasters when he was governor or Arkansas and knew from experience what was going to happen.
“The next few days are going to be very, very hard on a lot of people. A lot of you who have been very, very brave and courageous helping your friends and neighbors, it’s going to sink in on you what you have been through and what has been lost. I want to encourage all of you to really look out for each other in the next few days and be sensitive to the enormous emotional pressures that some of you will feel,” Clinton said. “And also, kind of be good to yourselves. You don’t have to be ashamed if you’re heartbroken. But it’s going to be tough in the next few days. But I also want you feel very resolute about the long run.”
The president’s words, while only words, rallied the citizens of Grand Forks in their moment of need. He was a needed boost at a horrible time. When Clinton returned to Grand Forks in 2012 to commemorate his flood visit, businessman and civic leader Hal Gershman introduced the president and said this about 1997:
“In our nation’s history, I just wonder if any other president brought so much power and compassion to a natural disaster as you did that day.”
Clinton could speak, for sure. But for all his personal faults, he also had a special ability to connect with Americans. He had the human touch. He actually cared about people. And that led to the remarkable compassion he showed in Grand Forks.
Trump showed no compassion in Texas. It was no surprise. You actually have to possess it before you can show it.