Opinion | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Donald Trump and the Limits of the Reality TV Presidency
By JON MEACHAM
As with most politicians, Franklin D. Roosevelt loved attention and approval in equal measure. Once, after watching himself in a newsreel, he remarked, "That was the Garbo in me." On meeting Orson Welles, the president said, "You know, Orson, you and I are the two best actors in America!"
Reflecting on Roosevelt's determination to seek a third and then a fourth term as president, Harry Truman observed, "I guess that was his principal defect, that growing ego of his, which probably wasn't too minuscule to start with, though perhaps it was his only flaw."
And yet Roosevelt had the gifts of self-knowledge and a compassion for the plight of others, saving graces that enabled him to become one of a handful of truly great and transformative presidents. As important as he believed popular leadership to be — the Fireside Chats, the careful cultivation of public opinion, the weekly press briefings — he understood, too, that less was sometimes more.
"I know," he wrote in a 1935 letter, "that the public psychology and, for that matter, individual psychology cannot, because of human weakness, be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note in the scale."
Roosevelt's first two years in office had been tumultuous as he launched assault after assault on the Great Depression. Now he thought the public needed something of a breather. "There is another thought which is involved in continuous leadership," he said. "Whereas in this country there is a free and sensational press, people tire of seeing the same name day after day in the important headlines of the papers, and the same voice night after night over the radio." A leader's balancing act was to educate and shape public opinion without becoming overly familiar or exhausting.
As in so many other things, we are living through a new test of that old truth as 2017 becomes 2018. President Trump is ubiquitous — a leader who seems devoted to not only political but also cultural domination. Yes, his bottomless thirst for attention is abetted by broadcast and social media; many Americans are locked in a codependent relationship with a president who's able to set new highs in lows on nearly a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. This month, The Times reported that before taking office, Mr. Trump told aides "to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals."
The presidency-as-production has been a good starter — Mr. Trump is, after all, the president of the United States — but history suggests that the means of his rise could be the means of his undoing. His understanding of the presidency is more informed by the values and folkways of show business (specifically, reality-based entertainment, from "The Apprentice" to professional wrestling) than by any larger sense of duty or dignity. And no show lasts forever.
Theatricality, it is true, is an essential element of power. Whether onstage or on a throne, whether in the Oval Office or the House of Commons, great leaders are often great performers, able to embody national purposes and hopes, projecting strength and resolve in moments that threaten to give way to weakness and despair. In the night before the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare's Henry V is racked by doubt and anxiety and fear, only to emerge in the sunlight to transform his men into a fabled "band of brothers."
Roosevelt's point in his observation about the need to ration his exposure was that Agincourts should be the exception, not the rule. Dwight Eisenhower, who served in the years of the rise of television, used to make the same point. "I keep telling you fellows I don't like to do this sort of thing," he told advisers who urged him to go on the air more often. "I can think of nothing more boring, for the American public, than to have to sit in their living rooms for a whole half-hour looking at my face on their television screens."
Presidents, as John F. Kennedy once observed, are subject to "clamorous counsel" — everyone, it can seem, has thoughts on how they could do the job better. When he was being told what to do and how to do it, Eisenhower — who, beneath his serene surface, had more than a bit of a temper — once replied: "Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I've had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And I tell you this: You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it's usually called 'assault' — not 'leadership.'" He went on: "I'll tell you what leadership is. It's persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience. It's long, slow, tough work. That's the only kind of leadership I know, or believe in, or will practice."
If Mr. Trump is averse to heeding counsel from President Eisenhower — who, as a general with a fondness for businessmen, should be a congenial voice — perhaps he might learn from his own late lawyer. One of Mr. Trump's mentors from his New York days was Roy Cohn, who as a young man was chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose Communist-hunting from 1950 to 1954 transfixed the nation.
The conventional view of Senator McCarthy's ultimate fall turns on the Army-McCarthy hearings, when he showed himself to be dark and bullying. The iconic moment came when an opposing lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, asked, brilliantly: "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
In the popular mind, that question brought McCarthy down. But Cohn believed something deeper was also at work. "Undoubtedly the hearings were a setback," he recalled in a 1968 memoir about McCarthy. "But there were other more fundamental reasons for his decline. By the time the hearings ended, McCarthy had been the center of the national and world spotlight for three and a half years. He had an urgent universal message, and people, whether they idolized or hated him, listened. Almost everything he said or did was chronicled."
And that surfeit of attention, Cohn argued, itself contributed to McCarthy's decline. "Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs — and especially a holder of high office — cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy," Cohn observed. "The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause. And Joe McCarthy had nothing to offer but more of the same. The public sought new thrills," but "the surprise, the drama, were gone."
To everything, in other words, there is a season, and McCarthy's hubris hastened the end of his hour upon the stage. "I was fully aware of McCarthy's faults, which were neither few nor minor," Cohn said. "He was impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had in order to draw attention to the rock-bottom seriousness of the situation. He would neglect to do important homework and consequently would, on occasion, make challengeable statements."
The urge to overstate, to overdramatize, to dominate the news, was costly. McCarthy, Cohn said, was essentially a salesman. "He was selling the story of America's peril," Cohn recalled. "He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general-accounting-office type of presentation. In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two," and in so doing he opened himself to attacks that proved fatal. He oversold, and the customers — the public — tired of the pitch, and the pitchman. For Mr. Trump, that's a New Year's lesson worth pondering.
Jon Meacham is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt and the author, most recently, of "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush."
Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson
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