Friday, May 6, 2016

What Does "Being Presidential" Mean?

Will Donald Trump now start "being presidential"? Can he? These are the curious questions commentators keep asking. But what exactly does "being presidential" mean? Sometimes it sounds as if all it meant were using a teleprompter instead of ad libbing at the podium! But those are jus the dignified externals of presidential behavior - important certainly - but basically somewhat superficial, as if the Presidency were just a role, as if "being presidential" were just acting a part.

If that is all that is meant, then we should expect candidate Trump to be very "presidential" indeed. He is, after all, by background and temper, a celebrity reality-show performer. What better background - in this mindlessly superficial entertainment culture - could one have for playing a role, for playing  at "being presidential."?

Obviously, like dressing respectfully for work (which fewer and fewer people do nowadays), those externals (like being able to give a proper speech) do in fact matter. But they matter mainly insofar as they say something about how seriously one sees one's job, how seriously one understands its multiple requirements, and how seriously one respects the job's constituencies. And that is true, whatever the job. I suspect the expression "being presidential" is really intended as a surrogate for whether one has the attitude and temperament to be our Head of State.

So far, Donald Trump has demonstrated - somewhat to inside-the-bubble elite commentators' surprise and chagrin - that he most certainly has the character and temperament to be a successful candidate. And, of course, as JFK supposedly said, the first duty of a good president is to get elected. There are any number of people who  have the intelligence, grasp of policy, interest in issues, and overall seriousness to make very distinguished presidents, but who lack the personality and skills to get themselves elected, and so by definition can never be president - let alone be "presidential." 

It remains to be seen whether candidate Trump really has what it takes to get elected in a General Election. We'll now in November. Even a good candidate can lose to a better candidate, after all. And he will be running against someone who is one of the most qualified candidates in recent history in terms of the above-mentioned "presidential" qualities of intelligence, grasp of policy, interest in issues, and overall seriousness.

On the other hand, an election is a competition, in which the candidates appeal more to our emotions and feelings, than to our intelligence, grasp of policy, interest in issues, and overall seriousness. We have to hope, election after election, that the winning candidate (and the country with him or her) can somehow navigate the transition from focusing on emotions and feelings to intelligence, grasp of policy, interest in issues, and overall seriousness.

"For there is no apprenticeship a man can serve for the Presidency, no book nor any guide to the creative powers of the individual who leads the greatest of the world’s free people, no instructive analysis of an office bound and defined not so much by law as by the nature of men and the pressures of history.” (Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960). 

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