The Corner

Enough with the ‘Presidential’

A word I could do with hearing a lot less often is “presidential,” not in its ordinary sense (“The Secret Service handles presidential security”) but in the sense of describing some ineffable, elusive dignity attached to the person of the president.

I write this partly because of my longstanding objections to our increasingly royalist and ceremonial attitude toward the presidency, but also because it just doesn’t make any sense.

“Presidential” is an essentially reflexive adjective, i.e., that which is “presidential” is related to the presidency. If “presidential” is meant to describe a way of comporting oneself in public, then we surely must consider that there is not really all that much that our presidents have in common that they do not have in common with other reasonably responsible human beings. They know when to joke and when to be serious, what occasions call for what degree of formality, etc.

Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine what “presidential” quality actually connects the public styles of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. Washington was a military aristocrat; Lincoln was a thoroughgoing democrat and republican (but not, like that confused fellow delivering the Democratic response last night, “a Republican and a Democrat”); Kennedy was glamorous; Nixon was hard-headed and just plain hard; Carter was pastoral; Reagan was famously sunny. George W. Bush was pretty sunny, too, at times, but it is difficult to imagine Reagan (or George H. W. Bush) having quite so common a touch. But did Lyndon Johnson really seem less like a president for all his vulgarity and drawling?

If by “presidential” we mean exhibiting the qualities we’d like in a chief executive, then it might mean (to me, anyway) something like Eisenhower’s style, inasmuch as Eisenhower performed heroic feats of labor to allow the country to believe that he was just golfing while the world somehow miraculously managed not to disintegrate. Gerald Ford, asked about his unassuming style, responded with one of my favorite quips in all of politics: “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

But if “presidential” is really meant to describe the modern presidency as it exists, then “presidential” means Barack Obama and Donald Trump: omnipresent, purporting to be omnipotent or near to it, hysterical, histrionic, messianic.

And if that’s what the word means, then I especially don’t want to hear it, because I do not want any more of that.

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