Is President Trump behaving in the manner befitting a president? How should we define what is, and is not, presidential? Just as importantly, how much does it matter? Graham J. Noble explores the serious — and not so serious — answers to these questions. In Part two of two, the humorous side.
The American people have every right to expect a lot of their president. They have the right to expect the nation’s Big Cheese to keep them safe, create the conditions for national prosperity, respect the Constitution and keep out all those damned foreigners who have no good reason to be here. Should they, however, expect the president to rigidly conform to a mode of behavior that is, well, presidential? Having reflected upon the issue – as it pertains to President Donald Trump – we should now consider previous holders of the office. We should ask ourselves whether Trump’s supposedly un-presidential behavior is truly unprecedented? Has he really sullied his exalted position in a way that none of his predecessors did?
No, he has not – and here’s why.
Although would-be presidents wear pantsuits, real presidents wear business suits. As befitting the office, they wear business suits every day, unless they have some down-time. Other than that one time Donald Trump played a round of golf, he has never been seen wearing anything other than a business suit and tie. He doesn’t take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves. Many previous presidents did. Since we can safely assume that he’s not trying to conceal a tattoo of Maxine Waters’ face on his forearm, we must go with the assumption that he knows that this is how a man dresses to conduct serious business. So, in terms of dress, Trump scores higher on the presidential behavior scale than most presidents in living memory.
We do not expect the president to use coarse or vulgar language. To be fair, Trump is known to have made some less-than-respectful remarks about the fairer sex, in his past. He’s not alone, on that score; Bill Clinton once confessed that, as a younger man, he lined the bed of his el Camino with astroturf. “You don’t want to know why,” he said during a speech, “but I did.” We can assume that it was not for the purpose of training hamsters to play football.
Since taking office, however, Trump’s language has been quite presidential. Sure, he has tweeted some nasty insults at journalists but, seriously, who cares? No one that matters, that’s who.
Trump hasn’t used coarse language since taking office, however – or, at least, not in public. Of all aspects of human behavior, one would have thought that cussing or other vulgar language would be considered un-presidential. Our second president, John Adams, was known – like many of the Founding Fathers – to be less than polite, on occasion. He was fond of referring to Alexander Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” Was that un-presidential? Hamilton certainly thought so, writing, of Adams, “he does not possess the talents adapted to the Administration of Government, and that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate.” One could argue that these comments were written in private letters but, let’s be honest; if Twitter had been around in the early 1800s, our earliest presidents would have been lighting it up with expletives.
American political history is littered with presidents saying very un-presidential things. Nixon, watching the Washington Redskins struggle against the Dallas Cowboys, was heard to exclaim “son of a b*tch!” JFK was known to be fond of dropping the odd F-bomb. Harry Truman once described Nixon as “a shifty-eyed g*ddamned liar.” Lyndon Johnson once pointed out “I do know the difference between chicken sh*t and chicken salad.” George W. Bush once referred to a New York Times reporter as a “major-league a**hole.” That might not count, however, for our purposes; other than being the correct way of referring to New York Times reporters, Bush wasn’t yet president when he said it.
The reality is that, when it comes to foul language and insults, Trump is very reserved; a mere amateur, by presidential standards.
What else might be considered un-presidential behavior? Performing a sex-act with an intern in the White House? Lying about said act – as well as other extramarital affairs – to the entire nation? Perhaps putting one’s feet up on the Resolute Desk? Obama was so fond of using the famous Oval Office desk as an ottoman that one can’t help suspecting he was deliberately disrespecting the office of presidency. This writer found five such photographs within less than 30 seconds.
I could go on, but, the truth is, there’s no such thing as un-presidential behavior. Conversely, one could make a serious case for every action – that is not within the president’s constitutional authority – being un-presidential.
When you’re the president, you just can’t win. Fickle Americans who want their president to be one of us then frown and furrow their brows, murmuring like aged schoolmasters, when the president behaves like one of us. The president is the president; everything he does is, therefore, presidential. Now, were he to march up and down Pennsylvania avenue, wearing a ski-mask and waving a sign that read “Down with the fascist government!” we might have a case of un-presidential behavior.
A final thought on the subject: Most Americans distrust the political establishment, and for good reason. The major component of Trump’s allure was not his lustrous head of hair, his beautiful wife and almost disturbingly attractive family, his catchy names for political opponents or his jaw-dropping arrogance; no, the major component was his obvious un-presidentialness. The last leader of this country who truly had an obligation to speak and act in a manner befitting his station was George III. Let’s celebrate un-presidential presidents; it’s part of who we are supposed to be.