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Former Carter Speechwriter Reflects On How Presidents Used To Speak Overseas


President Trump's speech in Warsaw yesterday reminded James Fallows of the speech that he wrote for another president visiting the Polish capital during his first year in office.


JIMMY CARTER: Poland is the ancestral home of more than 6 million Americans, a partner in a common effort against war and deprivation.

SIEGEL: Fallows, who's now a national correspondent for The Atlantic, was then a young speechwriter for Jimmy Carter when Carter visited Warsaw in December 1977. The country was still under communist rule. Fallows writes for The Atlantic today about Carter's words then and how plain and simple they were on the question of what America is.

Jim Fallows, welcome to the program once again.

JAMES FALLOWS: Robert, nice to talk to you. That brings it all back.

SIEGEL: One big difference between Carter's 1977 remarks in Warsaw and Trump's speech yesterday - Trump spoke for much, much longer, over half an hour to a very big crowd - Carter for just a few minutes at the airport.

FALLOWS: Yes, Carter's was just in the standard category of airport arrival remarks. It was the first speech and first appearance on what was a very long, multi-country tour. Even though he was only speaking for 5 minutes on the tarmac, he was essentially setting the tone he wanted to establish for the rest of the trip, which was that while Poland and America were linked by history and by migration and all the rest, what really linked them, he said, was some commitment to long-term ideals of peace, of human rights and so on.

SIEGEL: In substance, what would you find to be the big difference between that and the speech that President Trump just gave.

FALLOWS: I thought that Donald Trump's speech was remarkable in that, in contrast to what Jimmy Carter said or Ronald Reagan in Germany or John F. Kennedy in Germany or almost any other American president when speaking overseas, is that previous presidents spoke mainly in universal terms, talking about the idea of the United States, its commitment to liberty and how this was something that was shared around the world. Donald Trump I thought was speaking in much more tribal terms. And in that way, it was like a campaign rally in the United States, but it was not like the way American presidents have previously spoken to world audiences.

SIEGEL: As Trump said yesterday, we must work together - we Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe - to confront forces whether they come from inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten overtime to undermine our values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition. You find that a more tribal take.

FALLOWS: I do. Culture, faith and tradition - all those things (laughter) - I believe in every one of them. But if you look at the rhetoric of American presidents, you can start certainly with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to a degree. Before that and down through the centuries, what they have almost always stressed when traveling overseas is the idea and the ideals that they say America represents to the world and through which they want to connect. And Donald Trump I believe did not use the word democracy in that speech. And even though he had some sort of toe touches on free expression and free debate, it was essentially saying, we, our entity, our people is under threat from them.

SIEGEL: We can't talk about Carter's 1977 speech in Warsaw without noting what was most remarked on it at the time. Unfortunately the interpreter that day had a very rough outing translating into what I believe was his fourth language, Polish. And he got some things wrong.

FALLOWS: He did indeed. And you hear in that clip that Jimmy Carter had then and now a distinctive regional accent. And whether for that reason or some other, he said, when - Carter had said, when I left the United States this morning - and that apparently got rendered as when I abandoned my country.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

FALLOWS: And he said, we're here to understand the desires of the Polish people. And that apparently got rendered in the most salacious version of (laughter) the English word.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) We desire the Polish, yeah.

FALLOWS: (Laughter) So, you know, it was - every trip has its ups and downs.

SIEGEL: James Fallows of The Atlantic and long ago of the Carter White House, thanks for talking with us today.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.