When Donald Trump started a national conversation about his regrets the other day, he notably neglected to say just what he regretted.
“Sometimes in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it — and I do regret it — particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”
Since Trump read these words from a prepared text in North Carolina, much has been made of his new tone and willingness to soften his message — even though he never actually apologized to anyone or said he was sorry for any particular statement.
Many have seen these few sentences as signaling a new phase in the Trump phenomenon. But they may as easily be heard as a slight variation on the theme Trump has sounded from the beginning. In other words: same song, different verse.
And the song, of course, is the 1969 Frank Sinatra classic “My Way,” which sends an unmistakable message of defiance with the dismissive line: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
(Hit play for your soundtrack to the rest of this post):
But more of that in a moment.
Let us first consider the case for the Trump “personal pain” remarks being a true change of heart.
Just days before he made those remarks, Trump replaced his controversial campaign boss Paul Manafort, saying on the campaign trail “when something is broke you fix it.” And one of the two people who took over for Manafort was Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist well-known for making male conservative candidates more palatable to female moderate voters. (Past clients have included Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson and Ted Cruz — not to mention a previous association with Mike Pence.)
Conway has also gotten credit for getting Trump to reach out rhetorically to black voters. His specific argument to them (“What have you got to lose?”) seemed to go over with white audiences, at least, but has not received much love thus far in the African-American community.
In this same pursuit, Trump held a highly publicized meeting over the weekend with his Hispanic advisory group. That left the impression Trump might be backing down from his proposals for a “deportation force” to remove everyone now in the U.S. illegally.
But Trump soon said he was not backing down on anything, and his Monday night rally in Akron, Ohio, was animated by talk of a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico — paid for by the government of Mexico.
So these supposed appeals may fall on deaf ears in their supposed target audiences. But no matter. The real intention may be to make Trump less disturbing and divisive in the eyes of voters who might still be persuaded to back him — specifically white independents and moderate Republicans who are not now on board. Many of these are women, and they are Conway’s natural habitat.
So is Trump now sending mixed messages, confusing to his core constituency of anti-immigration and anti-trade non-college white men?
Not necessarily. Or at least not any more confusing than the mixed message in Sinatra’s “My Way.”
The uncanny resemblance between Trump’s swaggering style and the “My Way” ethos has been noted before. Reddit simply ran the full lyrics back in April, the San Diego Tribune suggested in May that the song be Trump’s campaign theme, and the Bradenton Herald in Florida in June envisioned Trump singing it himself.
The song, which you have probably heard even if you think you haven’t, starts out:
“And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.
“My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.”
Other lines include “I did it all, and I stood tall,” and each verse ends with the refrain: “I did it my way.”
That song has been re-recorded and parodied countless times, by everyone from Elvis Presley to Oscar the Grouch. But it began life as a Sinatra hit in 1969 and became the signature song of the “Ol’ Blue Eyes” comeback.
The lyrics were the work of pop singer and songwriter Paul Anka, who borrowed the tune from a French ballad of the day. But it was Sinatra who gave the recording its mix of melancholy and machismo, and Anka had him in mind when he wrote it.
In his 2013 autobiography (titled My Way, of course), Anka told of having dinner with Sinatra and “a couple of mob guys” and having Sinatra ask about a song Anka had promised him. Anka says he sat up all night at an electric typewriter getting the words down and called Sinatra in the morning.
He also said that when he wrote the lyrics he was trying to reproduce the way Sinatra talked (especially in the song’s unlovely phrase “I ate it up and spit it out”).
Trump himself has also spoken of his experiences with Sinatra in interviews with Howard Stern (warning, the clip contains a curse word):
Giving another listen to Sinatra singing “My Way” will not clarify all that is uncertain about Trump’s stand on immigration — or about the state of the Trump campaign. But it is more entertaining, and possibly more revealing, than all the statements from Trump’s myriad surrogates on cable TV news this week.