Does Donald Trump ‘Act Presidential’? Did George Washington?

Thoughts on presidential gravitas and communication as we commemorate the birth of our nation's first President.

(Left) President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Right) Copy of Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington.

By Calvin Beisner Published on February 22, 2017

A friend asked me if I approved of Donald Trump’s behavior in office so far as whether it qualifies as “acting presidential.” That got me thinking, and I think what I wound up writing is worth sharing with more than just a few.

My opinion is mixed and by no means settled. I can’t help wondering whether, as our society’s own behavior changes, what it means to “act presidential” also changes.

Gravitas

Don’t get me wrong. I wish we had someone with much greater gravitas as President. Ronald Reagan came closer than anyone in my adult lifetime, and I think perhaps Dwight Eisenhower and maybe Harry Truman had it — even FDR (even though I think he was, for domestic policy then and the trajectory on which he placed us, a disaster).

Much to my sorrow, we are as a nation a people who hardly know what gravitas means, and many wouldn’t understand it if they saw it.

But I doubt that any President since Abraham Lincoln has matched Lincoln, and I think George Washington excelled them all — which makes it providential that I’m writing this in anticipation of his birthday, which I believe should still be a national holiday of its own, as should Lincoln’s.

Of course, that we have only written, no audio or video recorded, records of Washington, and little photographic record even of Lincoln, makes it easy to magnify them in our imaginations. But in both cases their writings and speeches, and especially Washington’s conduct, provide ample justification to think they were both men of great gravitas and dignity — if not regal, still solemn in mind, speech and bearing.

Much to my sorrow, we are as a nation a people who hardly know what gravitas means, and many wouldn’t understand it if they saw it.

Our Changing Communication

If a President must communicate effectively with the public, then surely he must somehow figure out how to communicate on its level. For better or worse, Trump seems to know how to do that — at least with a lot of Americans (and not just the ignorant or vicious — or both).

As a teacher, I struggled often with the dissatisfaction of knowing that in the 1990s and 2000s (my decades as a professor), it was simply unreasonable to expect more than a small percentage of students to appreciate a sustained, 45-minute, let alone 2- or 3-hour, lecture, especially if it were read (albeit with good rhetorical skill) from manuscript.

A century ago, that wasn’t so. Most lectures were delivered just that way, and students had learned the discipline of listening carefully — some even transcribing the full lectures in shorthand. The results were, I think, far greater than are common now.

Take a look sometime at the entrance exam for the Jersey City high school in 1885 and ask whether most people with advanced degrees could pass it today. Clue: When Covenant College President Frank Brock read it to a group of new and old faculty members at dinner one night, most of us could hardly answer more than two or three questions!

Similarly, last summer I attended the Acton Institute’s “Acton University” conference, filled with outstanding lecturers. My two favorites were a physicist (speaking on economics!) and a judge (speaking on history), both of whom read from script brilliant, detailed, conceptually complicated lectures. I absolutely loved them and got more out of each than out of all the others I heard combined.

What did most of the rest of the audience think? Everyone I asked, in my breathless excitement, thought those lectures were awful!

An effective teacher at the college or graduate level today cannot, cannot, use the same delivery method effective teachers used a century or more ago.

In other words, I’m no longer sure what it means to “act presidential” in the context of American culture as it is now as to opposed to as it was 20, 40, 60 or certainly 100 and more years ago.

We are, I’m convinced, impoverished by this dumbing down of our culture, this coarsening and cheapening of speech, bearing and behavior.

Regardless, as an American who wants our country to prosper — not merely materially but, far more importantly, spiritually, intellectually, morally, culturally, especially in justice, order, liberty and peace — I pray for our President to succeed as one (important) contributor toward all of that success.

And if he is to succeed, then I believe he must “act presidential” — but I’m not sure anymore just what that means.

 

Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., was Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College 1992–2008 and of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary 2000–2008. He is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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  • Wayne Cook

    If Presidential means stoic dignity, several illness display similar symptoms.

  • Triple T

    Some people seem to confuse “acting presidential” with “acting like the pastor of a church”.

  • Autrey Windle

    Maybe the easier question is ‘what is NOT presidential’? That might include things like having sex with an intern in the oval office and then lying about it. It might include insulting the Supreme Court in a state of the union address. It might include printing money instead of refusing to spend more of it. You know…stuff and nonsense like that…

  • Peter

    What was that ancient Greek bit about a king being sacrificed when things turned sour, and I think sacrificed to (or virtually so) when things–especially crops yields and the economy– looked rosy? My memory is fuzzy here. Then there’s the Elliot (et al.) Wave theory that says mass mood drives market. Did Reagan’s gravitas derive at least in part because “we all felt good” (optimistic mass mood hence bull market) at the time? Was one-termer Jimmy Carter a victim of sour mass mood for his second election period?

    If so, somehow it also seems reasonable as far as it goes to suggest that “as our society’s own behavior changes, what it means to ‘act presidential’ also changes.” R.E. Lee’s and G. Washington’s respective gravitas were for a time forged in the midst of profoundly hard times (hence negative mass mood?) and derived from deep individual personality and religious characteristics–that as opposed to mass perception of the two, which simultaneously occurred.

    But Lee and Washington’s respective societies were closer to each other than either to our own. How, exactly, is a long story barely and partially illustrated by the majority population’s comparative general decline in intellectual and moral rigor (so above article), but these suggest the perceived ingredients of gravitas play their role in who as president is perceived as “acting presidential.”

    Some change in the perception may be as a result of moral decline. “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than [Saul] … taller …” (1 Sam. 9:2), and “to crooked eyes truth may wear a wry face” (Tolkien). Other changes may reflect shifts in cultural semiotics (e.g., wrt public etiquette?) hard to peg in sweeping moral terms. Other changes to perceptions of presidential gravitas may reflect the need of the hour (Churchill?) and be “merely” selective. And yet again, some ingredients like courage may transcend Zeitgeists. Or so I suppose, though such claims cry for more specific definitions and distinctions than I may have thought through.

    If Washington or Lincoln were somehow born instead in the A.D. 1950s (assuming varied problems with the anachronisms were “handled”), and ran for the office of U.S. President, would the US voters of 2016 have voted either one as, say, winner of the primaries? Or if either one were elected (being then creatures of their newly selected age and generation), how would the US population have viewed their “acting presidential-ness” in office in the heady 1980s–or especially today, in a profoundly divided and uncivil society on the cusp of major economic upset arguably in some ways reminiscent of 1860s or prior to the 1790s (Washington having “acted Presidential” as general)? Or what if Washington were magically transported to 2015, say, from his life in 1789 and Lincoln from 1861 to 2015?

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