Finance

Trump is too ‘scared’ to give an Oval Office speech to the country, President George H.W. Bush’s speechwriter says

  • Despite a pandemic, economic turbulence, and protests across the country, President Donald Trump has yet to give a recent Oval Office address to the nation.
  • Trump’s aides downplayed the effectiveness of a potential Oval Office address.
  • During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, President George H.W. Bush delivered one of these speeches.
  • One of Bush’s speechwriters told Insider that Trump’s remarks about the protests were “very overdue” and that “we’ve come to associate the Oval Office with moments of drama and of tragedy.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House on May 1, 1992, President George H.W. Bush outlined his administration’s plan to quell the Los Angeles riots in California.

The riots, prompted by the acquittal of three of the four police officers involved in the Rodney King beating from a year prior, were attributed to over 60 deaths in the county and over $1 billion in property damage.

Shortly after the verdict for the case was read on April 29, 1992, riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles. Video shot from news helicopters depicted a chaotic scene that unfolded — including a white truck driver being pulled out of his vehicle and beaten by rioters amid the backdrop of looted buildings.

Two days after the riots kicked off, Bush took to the radio waves and television screens in a national message. In the roughly 12-minute speech, Bush said he sympathized with civil rights leaders and was “stunned” by the video showing King’s beating.

“What you saw and what I saw on the TV video was revolting,” Bush said, referring to the violent beating of King. “I felt anger. I felt pain. I thought, ‘How can I explain this to my grandchildren?'”

“Civil rights leaders and just plain citizens fearful of and sometimes victimized by police brutality were deeply hurt,” Bush added. “And I know good and decent policemen who were equally appalled.”

Bush immediately launched a federal criminal investigation, led by then-attorney general William Barr, into King’s beating and denounced the riots. After the Justice Department’s investigation, a year after the state jury’s verdict, two of the police officers were convicted and sentenced to serve two and a half years in prison.

In his televised address, Bush denounced the riots and said, “What we saw last night … is not about civil rights.”

“It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple,” Bush said. “And let me assure you, I will use whatever force is necessary to restore order. What is going on in LA must and will stop. As your president, I guarantee you this violence will end.

“None of this is what we wish to think of as American. It’s as if we were looking in a mirror that distorted our better selves and turned us ugly. We cannot let that happen. We cannot do that to ourselves.”

Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for Bush and a senior lecturer at the University of Rochester, collaborated with other writers on the president’s speech at the time.

“It was received very well,” Smith recalled to Insider. “This was a speech that was of considerable consequence.”

Smith noted that the speech, which came during the spring of an election year, was difficult to prepare because Bush was attempting to balance two “cross-cutting” issues: Bush was trying to restore law and order in a community that had exploded with racial tensions, while at the time same time opposing the initial Rodney King verdict.

“Bush was outraged at the King verdict as he made that very clear in the speech itself,” Smith said. “And, as he tried to point out that we are a nation of laws, we must respect the sanctity of verdicts rendered by a jury — even those with which we disagree.”

“The speech was very well-constructed and Bush worked on this speech quite heavily because he knew it was important,” Smith added. “I think he handled it extremely well.”

donald trump church

President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Eagerness to ‘dominate’

A week after the death of George Floyd on May 25, protests have spread across the country. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was initially arrested on suspicion of passing counterfeit currency, died in police custody, and the case is currently being investigated by the Justice Department.

President Donald Trump’s tone since Floyd’s death has included moments of somberness as noted during his scripted remarks at the SpaceX launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday.

“The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy,” Trump said at the time. “It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief.”

“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he added. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or with peace.”

Some critics claim his remarks to unify the country ring hollow, overshadowed by his eagerness to mobilize US military forces.

He’s also faced criticism from conservatives. During a Fox News segment on Monday evening, opinion host Tucker Carlson said Trump’s inaction was “distressing” and that his aides failed to understand “the gravity of the moment.”

“How can you protect my family? How are you going to protect the country? How hard are you trying,” Carlson asked on his show.

“If you do not protect them, or worse than that, if you seem like you can’t be bothered to protect them, then you’re done. It’s over. People will not forgive weakness,” Carlson added.

trump rose garden

President Donald Trump makes a statement in the Rose Garden about the ongoing unrest across the nation on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a short speech at the Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, Trump urged state governors to deploy their National Guard assets in order to “dominate” the streets and threatened to use military force if the violence was not quelled.

Bush’s speechwriter, Curt Smith, said Trump’s remarks at the Rose Garden, a week after Floyd’s death, were effective in providing calm to the country but “very overdue.”

Absent from Trump’s repertoire was a solemn Oval Office speech, similar to the one Bush delivered during the Los Angeles riots. Smith said there was not a major difference between an Oval Office speech or one delivered at the Rose Garden, but admits “there is … a certain grandeur, that has come to be associated with the Oval Office.”

The practice of delivering an Oval Office address dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure and his mastery of radio, according to Smith. President John F. Kennedy also capitalized on the medium with the proliferation of television sets.

“We’ve come to associate the Oval Office with moments of drama and of tragedy in some cases,” Smith said. “But certainly with the grandeur of the presidency. So I think it would have benefited him.”

Trump’s surrogates have recently dismissed the idea of an Oval Office address as an unnecessary platform during the crisis. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a Fox News interview on Monday morning that Trump had “already issued several statements.”

“A national Oval Office address is not going to stop antifa,” McEnany said, referring to the amorphous anti-fascist movement, that Trump has alleged to have fueled the riots throughout the country. “What’s going to stop antifa is action. And this president has committed to acting on this.”

“Even if he gave the most beautiful and perfect speech, they’re going to say, ‘Who cares, this is his fault?'” an unnamed Trump adviser also said to Reuters.

Smith theorized that Trump has been “scared to opt that approach because several of his speeches from the Oval Office have not been received as favorably by the public as he would have liked — which is really his own fault.”

Trump recently gave a scripted Oval Office address about the US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in March, which was widely criticized for its confusing and misleading statements.

“Trump is, for lack of a better term, a ‘people person,'” Smith said. “I think he reacts well to feedback from other people — that is, even in the Rose Garden, he has members of the press there who may not like him. But at least he has them to speak to and to bounce the speech off of.”

“When he’s giving a speech in the Oval Office, he has no one except the teleprompter,” Smith added. “And the teleprompter is a very difficult instrument to master. He may need to revert to the Oval Office address, but I would urge him to practice a great deal more than he has.”

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