President Trump’s Sept. 22 speech in Alabama lasted one hour and 23 minutes. A transcript of his remarks runs more than 12,000 words.
To say the speech wandered all over is an understatement. Of course Trump covered the Alabama Senate race — he was in Huntsville to campaign for candidate Luther Strange — but he also discussed, in order: 1) the United Nations; 2) the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico; 3) North Korea; 4) the GOP’s failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare; 5) the 2016 election; 6) Mitch McConnell; 7) John McCain; 8) the beauty of the White House; 9) wife Melania’s footwear when visiting hurricane victims; 10) his own political clout and whether supporting Strange was wise; 11) the defense budget; 12) NAFTA and other trade deals; 13) Luther Strange’s height (6-foot-9); 14) White House chief of staff John Kelly; 15) drugs brought into the U.S. from Mexico; 16) the proposed border wall; 17) the Border Patrol; 18) religious liberty; 19) the Second Amendment; 20) the Electoral College; 21) Hillary Clinton’s 2016 strategy; 22) the Russia investigation; 23) the filibuster; 24) China; 25) the stock market; 26) the Veterans Administration; 27) his cuts in federal regulation; 28) NASA; 29) immigration; 30) taxes; 31) health care premiums; and 32) making America great again.
And yes, the president discussed professional football: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now; he’s fired.’” That aside came between Trump’s discussion of the Border Patrol and his discussion of religious liberty — about 38 minutes into the speech.
Put aside the merits of what Trump said about NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem — a point on which a majority of Americans agrees with the president. What is striking is that the football remarks, which set off another firestorm for Trump, are in the simplest sense a result of the president just talking too much.
Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican strategist, was a top aide to Ronald Reagan. He saw nearly every speech Reagan gave as president.
“Reagan said to me one day, ‘How long do you think I can hold an audience?’” Rollins recalled in a conversation Monday.
When Rollins said he did not know, Reagan explained, “Here’s what I do. I pick someone in the audience. I watch them. I watch their reaction, every so often look across the room.”
“I can hold an audience for about 20, 23 minutes,” Reagan told Rollins. “A half-hour TV show is 23 minutes.”
“The first five minutes, everybody is excited about seeing the president,” Reagan said. “You sort of cruise in the middle, and you kick at the end with a strong close for the last five minutes.”
“Anything beyond that, you basically start to lose the audience,” Reagan concluded. “Twenty minutes is plenty to get your message across.”
On Sept. 22 in Huntsville, President Trump gave not one, not two, not three, but four Reagan speeches, in one long, 83-minute stretch.
Trump never has been a disciplined speaker. During the early months of his campaign, he often talked for more than an hour. Back then, he would go on about his TV show, about his golf courses, his businesses, his billionaire friends — all sorts of topics.
It wasn’t at all unusual to see people walking out of Trump speeches, especially at night, after a half-hour, and certainly after 45 minutes. When I asked why they were leaving, most explained they had to work the next day. Attending a marathon political rally just took too much time, even if it was Donald Trump.
Trump’s logorrhea also increased the chance he would go off in some troublesome direction. As the campaign progressed, his staff made an effort to get him to deliver shorter, pre-written speeches from a teleprompter. That wasn’t easy; reading from a prompter was something Trump specifically mocked in many of his speeches.
The staff had some success. Trump read more of his speeches and improvised less. He never completely stuck to the script — digressions could go on for quite a while — but he got better. His improved campaign performance was one of the factors that won him the White House.
In Alabama, Trump did some serious backsliding and he found a way to make trouble for himself.
It’s impossible to imagine Trump disciplining himself to a Reaganesque 20 minutes. But Trump did improve during the campaign. Now, he has regressed to the worst excesses of his early speeches.
Ronald Reagan knew that people want to hear only so much, even from the president of the United States. At some point, Donald Trump will realize that hasn’t changed.