Without mentioning his name, the speakers who delivered remarks before President Donald Trump at the 400th anniversary events in Jamestown Tuesday appeared to be making strenuous rhetorical effort at preemption.
Though he wouldn’t take the stage with Trump, Gov. Ralph Northam that morning said modern Virginia “represents the best of what it means to be American.”
“We know our diversity is our strength and we welcome immigrants and refugees and all who, like those who stood on this spot 400 years ago, come to Virginia in search of a better life,” Northam said. “Our doors are open and our lights are on. No matter who you are, no matter who you love and no matter where you came from, you are welcome in Virginia.”
Former Newsweek editor and presidential biographer Jon Meacham said the United States should be judged on “how often we heed our better angels” rather than our worst impulses.
“Extremism, racism, nativism and xenophobia, and isolationaism, driven by a fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of stress: a period like our own,” he said. “Reflexive partisanship is the order of the day. Too many seem more interested in producing heat than shedding light. Our politics rewards the clenched fist and the harsh remark more than the open hand and the welcoming word.”
Meacham noted: “We don’t tend to build monuments to people who build walls. We build monuments to people who open doors.”
The Rev. Susan Goff, bishop suffragan and ecclesiastical authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, pleaded with the Almighty for “the courage to do the hard work of real reconciliation.”
And, she added: “Bless our continued efforts for justice, freedom and peace for everyone in this land. Everyone, everyone, everyone without exception.”
Wonder who they might be talking about?
But, then something somewhat unexpected happened.
The president of the United States managed to get through his entire speech without tossing any rhetorical grenades at political opponents, insulting another race or religion, telling anyone to go back to their country, or, perhaps most astonishingly, talking about himself or his successes.
“As we mark the first representative legislature at Jamestown, our nation also reflects upon an anniversary from that same summer four centuries ago,” Trump said. “In August 1619, the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies arrived in Virginia. It was the beginning of a barbaric trade in human lives. Today, in honor, we remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage.”
Even when his address to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the meeting of the Virginia General Assembly was interrupted by a protest from a state delegate from Northern Virginia, he leaned back from the lectern, tapped his fingers on the side, gritted his teeth and said nothing, resuming only when Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, was escorted out and the “Trump, Trump, Trump” cheers died down.
When he was done, even watching over the livestream, you could tell when everyone exhaled.
Our bar for presidential speech-making, of course, has been dramatically lowered these days. But Trump demonstrated that he can be, in short, something approaching presidential. (There was, however, a gaffe: “George Wythe,” Trump said while reading a list of famed Virginia lawmakers, inexplicably spelling it out. “W-I-T-H, it’s a great name, from Williamsburg.”)
Then, not long after his speech, he was already returning to form, quibbling with a reporter about coverage of Samirah, who, he said, “didn’t look so good to me. I’m going to be very nice.”
What about me "didn't look so good"? I wore my favorite bowtie… https://t.co/y3H2XqJvuo
— Delegate Ibraheem Samirah (@IbraheemSamirah) July 30, 2019