As an old speechwriter, I’m a close reader of political speeches. Especially important speeches, like Gov. Roy Cooper’s inaugural address.
Little noted in news coverage of the speech was an unmistakable message the governor sent to North Carolinians — and to Republican politicians in Raleigh — in the wake of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and the big-lie attack on the 2020 election.
The day after the invasion of the Capitol, Cooper had called for President Trump to resign or be removed. Two days later, his inaugural speech called on North Carolinians to renounce Trumpism.
Cooper’s speech was short, less than 900 words and just seven minutes. But four times in his brief address, the governor warned against what he framed as threats to democracy.
The speech largely followed familiar inaugural forms. He began by thanking his family, and he closed with a Bible verse. He reviewed the “triumphs and trials” of his first term. He reflected on history, how the state recovered from the Spanish flu pandemic in the 1920s. He proclaimed that “just as we did one hundred years ago, North Carolina is ready to roar again.”
The speech was sprinkled with appeals for bipartisanship and cooperation. But as Cooper extended a hand, he also flashed a fist.
He said the “trials” of the last four years included “earthquakes … that shook the very foundation of our democracy.”
A challenge we face now, he said, is “overcoming disinformation and lies and recommitting to the truth.”
He added, “We can respect our disagreements, but we must cherish our democracy.”
The governor called for “a new era … where we can acknowledge and work around our differences while refusing to sacrifice truth and facts at the altar of ideology. Where the dangerous events that took place at our nation’s Capitol can never be justified.”
After those references to lies, ideology, disinformation and dangers to democracy, he sounded a friendly note: “Hey, let’s cast aside notions of red counties or blue counties and recognize that these are artificial divisions … . These times of triumph and trial have shown us that we are more connected than we ever imagined.”
Cooper is by temperament deliberate and soft-spoken, more comfortable with conciliation than confrontation. His words weren’t harsh, and his tone wasn’t strident. But his message was clear.
I know how much deliberation and debate go into such speeches. I had a hand in Gov. Jim Hunt’s four inaugural addresses. Words matter.
Four years ago, a winter storm robbed Cooper’s first inauguration of the usual pomp, parade and parties. This year, it was the COVID storm.
Stormy times face the governor the next four years. Just as in his first term, the General Assembly and Council of State are dominated by Republicans who disagree with his politics, policies and priorities.
The differences took the stage at the inaugural ceremony. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson took his oath without a mask on a day when 11,581 more North Carolinians came down with COVID.
Cooper talked about the challenges of “emerging from this pandemic smarter and stronger than ever,” “educating our people and ensuring that every North Carolinian gets health care” and “forming a more perfect North Carolina, where every person has opportunity and access to the liberty that they deserve and our laws promise.”
And he challenged North Carolina to defend democracy and move on from the disinformation and divisiveness of the Trump era.
Years ago, during Vietnam and Watergate, Richard Nixon claimed he spoke for the “Silent Majority.” This year, in an even more trying and troubled time for America, Cooper spoke for the Decent Majority.
Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and government at www.NewDayforNC.com.