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Former Bush Speechwriter Weighs In On Trump's Message Post Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump has suggested he might be dropping some of the most attention-grabbing aspects of his presidential campaign. He told The New York Times yesterday that he's not sure torture works after all. He says he has an open mind on climate science, which he once called a hoax.

He no longer feels strongly about prosecuting Hillary Clinton. And while his campaign often seemed to wink at white supremacists, he says he disavows them, which leaves the question of what the president-elect will stand for. Let's talk it through with Michael Gerson, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, so he's been through presidential transitions before. He is a critic of Donald Trump. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Gerson.

MICHAEL GERSON: Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: What are you learning about the president-elect?

GERSON: Well, I think we're learning that he can't govern as he campaigned. If he did, he would smash the unity of the Republican Party. He would smash the unity of the country. He's having to change his tone and agenda. So to some extent, we're rooting for cynicism, rooting for hypocrisy.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GERSON: You want him not to do what he promised in the campaign. And, you know, as president, you are faced with a different set of responsibilities and challenges. And so the hope is that he gets that. He - I think he is rootless when it comes to political philosophy. That could go in a lot of different directions - liberal, conservative or some weird mix of the two, which is kind of likely. So that means, you know, we need to watch his appointments. We need to watch his statements. But I think he's making a transition of sorts in his rhetoric and approach.

INSKEEP: President Obama has suggested that the realities of the office constrain you, ultimately. Do you feel that this - this man, whether you like him or not, will be terribly constrained as president?

GERSON: Well, I hope so. You are constrained by reality. You get the - the briefing - the security briefing every morning that sobers you. There are a set of policies and alliances that exist before you and will exist after you. But the president does have the ability, if he makes a gaffe or says something wrong, you know, to tank global markets, to invite the possibility of conflict. You know, it would be my recommendation that we - my main recommendation - that the White House do away with presidential press conferences.

INSKEEP: Do away with presidential press conferences?

GERSON: Yeah, absolutely, because I think that he would - could be capable of saying two or three things at any press conference, particularly early, that could have terrible real-world consequences.

INSKEEP: The media has been arguing for more access to the president-elect, who hasn't held a press conference the last couple of weeks.

GERSON: When you are president, if you make mistakes, there are serious consequences. I want him to be scripted early on because I don't think he's capable or experienced enough to be responsible in that kind of setting as president of the United States.

INSKEEP: I am reminded of something that became clear early in the Bush administration - that President Bush - your President Bush felt that his predecessors had talked too much. He wanted to talk less. He wanted to say less. He felt that his words would mean more. This is a president-elect who has commented on Broadway shows, commented on TV programs, speaks a lot.

GERSON: Yes. I mean, he won the presidency because they took away his Twitter account for a few weeks, OK? And that - you know, he's not going to be able to do that as president of the United States - you know, pick fights, you know, have enemies. When you're president, if you, for example, mention a private citizen as someone that you dislike or - it is crushing. You know, the president can destroy someone, can discredit them.

We were very, very careful, you know, about mentioning any individual, even positively, because of the attention that would be drawn to them by those kind of mentions. And he's made a career of feuds. He can't do that as president. So I hope that there are people around him that can feel comfortable confronting him and saying, you've got to stay on script because the consequences are dramatic.

INSKEEP: He has said - he said on election night - early in the morning the next morning - he wanted to be president for all Americans. How can he do that?

GERSON: Well, he is going to have to retreat from a lot of things he said in the campaign. I mean, the reality here is that Donald Trump won office with a white-turnout strategy, a white-identity strategy, essentially encouraging a group of Americans to believe this is our country because of our ethnic background or our, you know, historical and cultural background. You can't be president that way. You have to speak to everyone, for everyone. His nostalgia was alienating - let's go back to our past greatness. For a lot of African-Americans, going back to the 1950s is not a good - great thing. You know, they've gained a lot of rights in this context, so you can't - you can't talk that way.

INSKEEP: As a presidential speechwriter, if you had a chance to script this president for his inaugural address, which is coming up, what's one thing you'd have him say?

GERSON: I would have him address directly the racial history of the country, to say this is a special category of wrong, Americans' original sin, that I get - you know, he needs to say, I get this; I'm going to be a healing president. I understand our history, and our history is that, at one time, 1 in 7 human beings was owned by another and that there are long-range consequences. So I would recommend that.

INSKEEP: Michael Gerson, thanks for coming by, always a pleasure to hear from you.

GERSON: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Michael Gerson was President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser from 2001 until 2006. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.