Critic’s Notebook: Trump Sands Down the Edges, at Least for a Night


He also opened with calls for unity — “We always will pull through together, always” — which contrasted with repeated network cutaways to congressional Democrats, seated and often glaring.

Reminders of disunity were never too far away. When Mr. Trump praised a guest, 12-year-old Preston Sharp, for arranging the planting of 40,000 flags at military graves, he added that it was a reminder of “why we proudly stand for the national anthem” — a none-too-subtle allusion to his divisive attacks on NFL players over protests during the national anthem.

This acoustic version of Mr. Trump did not come across warmer, except in moments of exchange with heroes and grieving parents in the audience. Mr. Trump was a TV performer for years, but he is not, like Ronald Reagan, an actor. He doesn’t modulate his tone. He just keeps his chin stuck out and speaks slower, in a half-whisper, like someone trying to have an argument in a quiet restaurant.

Last year, when Mr. Trump addressed a joint session of Congress and stuck to his script, he was hailed by analysts as finally having become presidential. The next weekend he was on Twitter, accusing Barack Obama of having conspired to “tapp my phones” during the campaign.

A year later, we know that this president can only be counted on to pivot in the sense that a Tilt-a-Whirl can. Even the Fox News round-table noted that it did not come off as the bipartisan “olive branch” hinted at earlier in the day.

But if the State of the Union cannot be taken as a reliable guide as to who Mr. Trump is, it is a useful guide to how he wants to be seen. This speech sought to project the image of someone who can keep his cool to viewers who tune out day-to-day politics.

There are probably fewer of that group than usual, given how un-tune-out-able Mr. Trump’s outbursts and the news cycle has made him. This administration is like “Scandal”: The plot changes every commercial break. The hour before the speech, the cable networks largely skipped the usual previews to cover new reports on the Russia investigation.

Even the usual pageantry was affected by Trump-drama subplots. The arrival of the first lady, Melania Trump, was noted by commentators who pointed out that she arrived separately, and that her white suit resembled those worn by Democratic women at last year’s speech — the subtext, seemingly, being recent reports of strife in the couple’s marriage.

The counterprogramming, too, was busy, reflecting the throng of Democrats jockeying to be the counter-voice to Trump. There was the official party response — Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts at a Fall River, Mass., vocational school, a car competing with the congressional backdrop — but the planned responders also included Representative Maxine Waters (on BET) and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (on social media).

There will be other rebuttals and contradictions. Some of those may eventually be issued by the president’s less low-key self, tweeting as he watches “Fox & Friends.”

But this speech is who Mr. Trump is on paper — or on the prompter screen — until his next episode.

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