One more time for this true story: My father attended a country school in the North Carolina foothills where one teacher began every day by paddling all the boys in the class.
The teacher’s logic: Chances are they’re going to get up to something anyway.
On the playground then, and thereafter in the country and the city, there were other lessons. Pick on that kid with the glasses and the squeaky voice and the narrow shoulders, and the kid, it could turn out, might have a wicked right hook. Lesson learned. There are lines not to be crossed.
Which bring us to a man who apparently was not paddled, nor was he subject to the lessons of the schoolyard: Donald Trump, of late engaged in alleging a cable host had a facelift from which she was bleeding, and showing via photoshop magic that the respected CNN news network deserves to be slammed on concrete. And to any news report not to his liking, he shouts, “Fake news!” That’s not because he’s a truth-seeker; it’s for his own political convenience, and to drive his critics crazy. And it’s working.
(In fact, it’s worked for a long time now. In a look back at previous columns mentioning Trump, I found enough egg on my face to cover breakfast for the family at IHOP. Oh, I was a clever fellow, until Trump mopped the floor with the punditry.)
But now, it’s too late for the paddle or the playground. Presidents do not hear criticism, especially when they are silver-spooners who grew up shielded by limos and fathers’ fortunes and bodyguards, and never hit a skid that wasn’t greased. It is a common problem, has been in all White Houses: The aura of the presidency is a shield, and not necessarily a healthy one. Former presidents have complained about it, about the difficulty of getting people – even those closest – to tell the commander-in-chief what they really think.
Election to the presidency does not mean the victor is awarded a cloak of wisdom or a crown of civility and compassion. That’s why elections are important. The purpose of a presidential campaign is to let us discover whether a candidate has “what it takes,” to allow candidates the chance to reveal their true character. And it works. George H.W. Bush lost comrades in World War II, and cries for them still, says his biographer Jon Meacham. It provided him a degree of empathy to go with his courage. Bill Clinton’s humble beginnings and the trauma of family tensions involving his stepfather, made him determined to do better for himself, to “believe in a place called Hope.” Barack Obama’s sometimes-tumultuous upbringing taught him tolerance. Gerald Ford had a granite character that enabled him to pardon a despised predecessor, knowing it would cost him the presidency in the next election.
Donald Trump’s life was a smooth and privileged ride, and though the millions who voted for him would not be welcome in his clubs, they were manipulated by his willingness to run for the presidency while being unpresidential in every way, from how he talked about women to his ignorance of domestic and foreign affairs — and his continued disinterest in learning about them.
So now, when he tweets endlessly about his dislike for Mika Brzezinski or is quoted as saying an FBI director is a “nut job” and actually calls attention to something any other politician would try to forget – that video of him body slamming somebody in a photoshopped or something CNN logo – no one should be surprised.
The alarmed discussions of Trump’s inflammatory speeches, or the shock and outrage at his latest petty tweets (of course he has better things to do) or his denial of even things like the crowd size at his inauguration are, to take a contrary view for a liberal, a waste of time. The campaigner people got to know is the president they now have. There have been and will be no surprises. The presidency is not Cinderella’s slipper.
The ride is rough, but we’re all aboard. The best advice is the same as on the State Fair midway: Keep your arms inside the car, and scream if it makes you feel better.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org