Column

The best template for Trump’s inauguration speech? Nixon’s

Even before his inauguration, Donald Trump has notched up at least one dubious achievement: He’ll be the first modern president to enter the White House without a honeymoon.

Most Americans give new presidents the benefit of the doubt. In 2001, for example, a solid majority rallied behind George W. Bush despite the fact that he lost the popular vote.

Not Trump. On Tuesday, a CNN poll found that only 40% of Americans think he’s done a good job as president-elect — well below the 61% who backed Bush in 2001, and far below the 84% who approved of Barack Obama in 2009.

Indeed, the new poll showed that Trump has actually lost ground during his transition, normally a time when a new president’s stature improves. In November, CNN reported, 46% of the public thought Trump was doing a good job; some of those supporters have already drifted away.

Trump’s reaction to the survey, and others with similar results, was predictable. The polls “are rigged just like before,” he tweeted.

But the erosion of his support was predictable too. Trump’s standing bounced up at first, after he promised on election night to “bind the wounds of division,” and after he helped negotiate a deal saving some 800 jobs at an Indiana manufacturing plant.

Since then, the president-elect has reverted to the truculent style of his campaign, tweeting complaints at critics from John Lewis to Meryl Streep. The news about his transition has focused on the controversy over his chumminess toward Russia’s Vladimir Putin, not his promises to create jobs.

That makes Trump’s inaugural address on Friday an event with unusually high political stakes. It’s not only an opportunity for the new president to set out his goals in office; it’s also a chance to appeal to skeptical voters — and to renew the unifying tone of his election night remarks.

There are signs that Trump wants to do just that. “His instruction to me was: The campaign is over. I am now president for all the people,” inaugural chair Tom Barrack told reporters. “I want you to build a bridge and tie them back in. I want to heal the wounds and I want to get back to work.”

And a few weeks ago, Trump told historian Douglas Brinkley that he was studying the inaugural speeches of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon to prepare.

The Kennedy and Reagan speeches are acknowledged as classics. But Nixon?

Actually, Nixon’s 1969 speech is the one most likely to be useful to Trump, because Nixon’s circumstances were most similar to his.

Nixon won a three-way race with only 43% of the popular vote (less than Trump’s 46%), and was seeking to lead a country bitterly divided over racial tension and the Vietnam War. He decided that what the country wanted was fellowship, not division, and on Inauguration Day in 1969, he delivered a speech that was both generous and graceful — words not often attached to the 37th president.

“When we listen to the better angels of our nature, we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things, such as goodness, decency, love, kindness,” Nixon said that day. “To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.”

The speech, and Nixon’s early efforts to govern from the center, launched his presidency on a wave of relative good feelings, according to John A. Farrell, author of a forthcoming biography, “Nixon: The Life.”

“He made a serious attempt to cast himself as a unifier,” Farrell told me. “It did bring him a honeymoon.”

That was all the more striking because Nixon, like Trump, had always been a brawler.

“Nixon spent his entire career as a champion of the politics of grievance, and aimed it at working-class and middle-class Americans — the people he called the forgotten man,” Farrell said. “There’s at least a distant parallel with Trump there.”

If Trump follows Nixon’s example, he may sound like a new man on Friday, a president bent on reinstalling a measure of civility in public life.

Even so, that New Trump may not last. The New Nixon didn’t.

“The Vietnam War got in the way,” Farrell said. “Nixon couldn’t resist going after his enemies. The Old Nixon came back.”

We are already seeing Trump struggle between two instincts: the yearning to unite all Americans behind him, and the urge to attack every critic. That battle won’t be resolved on Inauguration Day, no matter what tone he strikes.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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