Watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary, we listen in (via White House tapes) on LBJ and later Nixon as they agonize about the war with advisers and confidants. In the process we hear the full range of sentiments expressed by presidents speaking confidentially—often angry, full of bluster and invective, and certainly not above calling this or that antagonist “a son of a bitch,” or worse. LBJ in particular was known for his crassness—a president who on occasion humiliated interlocutors by forcing them to continue a conversation in the men’s room, as he relieved himself in a stall. And Nixon became notorious for the ugliness of his utterances, a man whose default crudeness, amplified by isolation and paranoia, became downright lurid.

But that was in private. Which brings up what I want to discuss—namely, the issue of a leader’s private self vs. his public one. Remember the hilarious Saturday Night Live “Reagan Mastermind” skit, in which Phil Hartman played Reagan as a president who presents himself as a genial and pleasant know-nothing in public—only to transform into a brilliant, brutal, and cynical tactician once the doors are closed and he’s alone with his advisers? Partly the skit capitalized on particulars of Reagan’s personality; but it also tacitly acknowledged, and comically exploited, the fact that every president manufactures a public persona to serve as a way of camouflaging, and prettifying, certain grim aspects of the exercise of power. That this split between private and public demeanor constitutes a fundamental reality, indeed requirement, of holding the office has always been taken for granted (thus its usefulness for comedy.) Practically by definition, the public president was a cleaned-up human.

Until now.

Day after day we find ourselves confronting the remarkable prospect of a president who in official and even ceremonial settings strikes the garrulous, profane, reckless, and nasty notes that other presidents carefully kept hidden. Thus, in the brouhaha over the NFL protests, the president tweets that any team owner with a protesting player should “get that son of a bitch off the field.” On the floor of the UN, he threatens to “totally destroy” North Korea, mocking and taunting its leader as “Rocket Man.” Both these remarks sound exactly like a president venting in private to his confidants—before collecting himself and going out to offer a more tempered, composed and sober message to America and to the world.

But now there is no more tempering, no more filtering, no more collecting oneself, and no more composure. With Trump, the public presidential self has not only been elided into the personal one; it seemingly has been dispensed with altogether. Only in the rote cadences of lines read from the teleprompter does a ghost of that presidential presence linger. 

To be sure, Trump did not invent this trend; among prior presidents who sought to exploit and market their personal selves, one would surely cite Bill Clinton, with his underwear talk and Blues Brothers shtick on TV. But in Trump, the phenomenon reaches a whole new level; indeed, the abdication of the public and formal self has been the essence of his political appeal all along. Again and again he has broadcast abrasive remarks one previously could imagine being aired only in private. For instance, can’t you imagine a candidate joking with an adviser that “we really should be locking Hillary up”? Or coining deprecatory nicknames, a la “Little Marco,” for his opponents? Or boasting about the size of his crowds—or his penis? Or joking crassly that a journalist asked a tough question because she’s menstruating? These are the kind of offensive remarks politicians have long made in private. But Trump blares them loud. 

Only in the rote cadences of lines read from the teleprompter does a ghost of presidential presence linger

Why? At the start of his campaign, in an August 2015 column, I noted that his candidacy was based squarely on political incorrectness—on his eagerness to say what you’re not “supposed” to—and worried that we had badly underestimated the power of this appeal. 

People are so weary of smooth-talking, upbeat politicians who will never tell you anything not designed to ingratiate. When was the last time a politician... espoused any position that might alienate any potential voter? We’re tired of listening to stage-managed politicians who we suspect would sound completely different if we ever heard them in an unguarded moment.... With Trump, every moment is an unguarded moment. Significantly, his raw candor is effective not only when he’s making provocative policy-related statements, but also when he makes off-color jokes. Those jokes convey the impression that he’s not hiding anything; that he is giving us the truth, even if it’s crude and “unacceptable.” Getting called out by other candidates or the press simply bolsters this impression. And so the usual campaign dynamic has been stood on its head: outrageous statements that would sink a conventional candidate actually help him. Given this dynamic, Trump is practically gaffe-proof.

That was true two years ago, and it’s true today. Trump’s outlandish comments all hew to that original dynamic. The awkward truth is that his diehard supporters hear themselves both reflected and included in the very comments that make someone like me gnash my teeth. Which is why Trump was right when he boasted that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

When people who feel lied to by politicians conclude that the opposite of polished talk must be virtuous honesty, that’s faulty logic. But it can be hard to shrug off. Meanwhile, nastiness, pettiness, and vainglory have become the order of the day, and we are left to wonder, why is the formal public self of a president necessary in the first place? Is this about mere manners?

I don’t think so. The traditional expectation of statesmanlike behavior bears on a leader’s aspirational function, and not for himself, but for us; it reveals his role as a mirror of qualities that reflect our best capacities. Beyond that, and more important, there is a temperamental caution that is the special responsibility and burden of a U.S. president, leader of the most powerful country in the history of civilization. To the extent to which an American president seems to lack fundamentals of composure, balance and seriousness, it is—and should be—deeply unsettling. The last thing you want, in a man armed with the awesome power to destroy humankind, is someone who goes around shooting his mouth off.

Such concerns have run aground on Trump’s twofold discovery: first, that there was an enormous number of guys venting in bars in this country; and second, that the best way to get the vote of the guy venting in a bar is to sound like a guy venting in a bar. And so here we are. The dreary example of a president constantly flaunting his worst side makes me long for the days when you knew that someone like W, in private a wisecracking kind of guy, was “just pretending” to be solemn as he made his way through his day in the White House. Bravo! Presidential decorum expresses important civilizational and operational norms, and hardly a day passes without my wishing that the current occupant of the White House could be more, you know, normal.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.