At about 12:20, or seconds after President Donald Trump thundered the last line, a palpable chill settled over the television news world.
Brian Williams on MSNBC appeared to get off the first shot: “In 1960, we had ‘Ask not what you can do’ . . . in 2017, we had ‘American carnage.’ ”
He “took the hide off of everybody,” declared CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, who has seen plenty of hides removed over the years.
Jake Tapper on CNN seemed almost breathless at first, then came out with this: “I have to say . . . this is one of the most radical inaugural speeches we’ve ever heard.”
Fox News is typically considered the most reliably friendly of the networks to Trump — “Fox and Friends” contributor Pete Hegseth earlier in the morning even led crowds gathered on the mall in a “USA! USA!” chant. But that comity cooled noticeably minutes after the speech:
“Quite strong,” judged Brit Hume, not quite convincingly. “Very much Trump. . . . He painted this dark landscape . . . and promised to fix it all.”
His colleague and “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace dispensed with the hairsplitting: “This wasn’t just a transfer of power,” he said. “This was Donald Trump seizing power. . . . There’s a new sheriff in town, and he made that very clear.”
In modern TV history, or at least going back to the first Clinton inauguration, punditry immediately after inaugural speeches has typically taken a couple of tacks: 1. The new president did a good/adequate job of mending fences after a divisive campaign; 2. The new president offered a memorable phrase that will endure through time.
For example, in President Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, pundits and anchors happily embraced this line: “Today we can declare: Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We — the American people — we are the solution.”
After the Trump inaugural, just one word seemed to get stuck in their throats: “carnage.”
Gayle King of CBS News said, “We kept hearing it would be a speech about unity and healing. . . . That never came. I think that’s very surprising.”
If there’s one part of Inauguration Day that networks covet, if not demand, it’s this: No Surprises. Or this: No Sudden Development. No Breaking News. Certainly No Paradigm Shift.
Over the course of just 20 minutes, they got all of that. In what “will be known forever as the American Carnage Speech” (as Scott Pelley of “CBS Evening News” said), the networks saw the paradigm shift beneath their feet.
Dan Rather — who covered many inaugurations for CBS News over a long career there — was denied a TV camera Friday, but not Facebook. In a long post, he wrote of Trump’s speech: “His words and tone were angry and defiant. He is still in campaign mode and nary a whiff of a unifying spirit. There was little or nothing of uplift — the rhetoric of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Reagan. . . . I imagine many more being turned off, even sickened, rather than inspired by what our new President had to say. President Obama looked on with an opaque poker face. One could only imagine what he was thinking.”
Would Rather have said this on the air Friday afternoon? Probably not. But he did probably capture some of the fear and loathing of other anchors. “It felt as if . . . [Trump] almost was insulting every living president that was sitting next to him,” said “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd.
As powerful members of the Washington establishment themselves, he may as well have been insulting these TV anchors, too.