When I was in high school, I had the privilege of going to a university-level lecture on one occasion (at a local university). The topic of the lecture was Abraham Lincoln. I remember two aspects of the man's life that stuck out at me from that lecture:
- In his younger days, he and his lawyer friends debated "why men have tits" and came to the conclusion that it has to do with contingencies in case men should ever bear children
- After a rainy night, he looked out the White House window and declared that "there's enough mud and bullshit out there to make a politician."
The point of both of these points is to disabuse people of popular contemporary imagery that results in a tendency to lionize, if not deify, our sixteenth president. Lincoln's critics in his day perceived him as a joker and a buffoon (at times with good reason). One critic called the Gettysburg Address "silly, flat, and dishwatery" and referred to the man who presented it as "a man who must be pointed out to foreigners as president of the United States." (Although, given that the daguerreotype was a relatively new invention at the time, that's probably a true statement of all of his predecessors, too…)
I mention this because Donald Trump made a comment during a recent rally where he said he's been more presidential than anyone other than Lincoln. And that seriously raises questions of what it means to be "presidential".
I've pondered things like this before. Without regard to what else may or may not be true about the 44 unique people to claim the title of "President" (including their ability to perform the duties and the quality of the job done), it's probably fair to say that some were more presidential than others.
There are some names that, if you know nothing else about them, just sound like they could be a president. Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. James Buchanan. Or more recently, John Kennedy or Bill Clinton. Others, not quite so much. Martin Van Buren. Millard Fillmore. Richard Nixon. Barack Obama. The name Donald Trump feels like it could be somewhere in the middle. Probably below James Polk but above Grover Cleveland.
Then there are just certain looks that seem presidential. There's a certain mythology to the iconic images of presidents who have gone on to appear on our currency or have dedicated memorials to their legacies, that they look presidential. And it's hard to argue against that. Would Andrew Jackson be perceived as "presidential" if he didn't appear on the $20 bill? (We may learn in a few years…) What about Teddy Roosevelt and his appearance on Mount Rushmore? (With erosion, we'll probably find out in a few million years.) With the possible exception of Gerald Ford, we haven't had any truly presidential looking presidents since JFK.
What about grand oratory and passionate, moving speeches? This is one of the arenas where a president can truly shine, both on his own and with the assistance of speechwriters. And I'm talking about the whole package: the words themselves, the tone of voice, the gestures and body language. Both planned speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. There have been some truly remarkable speeches in presidential history. The beauty of the Gettysburg Address is its simplicity. Which speeches have the most memorable lines? "Steer clear of any permanent alliances" (George Washington's farewell address). "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." (FDR's first inaugural). "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." (JFK's inaugural). "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America." (Bill Clinton's first inaugural…)
I could probably go back significantly further back in history than I am, but in the post-World War II presidents, there has been a huge disparity between the democratic presidents (who, as a whole, were excellent orators), and the republican presidents (who, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, have gotten progressively worse at giving speeches). I remember commenting on a news forum in January, 2002, after George W Bush's state of the union address (the first such speech after September 11), that his delivery turned an otherwise interesting speech into a cure for insomnia. Trump has to be near the bottom of the pile here, and that's saying a lot.
Presidential? Trump could be, but he sure isn't acting like it now….