Herblock, the legendary Post cartoonist, spent decades depicting Richard Nixon as a sinister figure with a 5 o’clock shadow. The day after the 1968 election, Herblock sat down to draw the cartoonist’s office as a barbershop, a paper taped to the wall: “This shop gives to every new president of the United States a free shave.” Signed, “H. Block, proprietor.”
Herblock later explained his decision to employ a healing razor: “In spite of his past, it seemed to me that an incoming president, particularly at a time of national divisions and crisis, was entitled to his chance to lead.”
So is President-elect Donald Trump.
His clean shave does not mandate our empty mind. Not about the repulsive things Trump has said and done, nor about his manifest unfitness and unpreparedness for office. Nor does it signify naive optimism about Trump’s willingness — or even his capacity — to change. As Herblock discovered, which surely did not surprise him, “it turned out to be the same old Nixon.”
But democracy and the constitutional order compel respect for the outcome. Patriotism demands hope that a better Trump can and will emerge, alongside the faith that a resilient system of checks and balances will operate to constrain his worst instincts.
“I hope he fails,” Rush Limbaugh said of Barack Obama before the inauguration in 2009, and it felt, as I listened to Limbaugh’s words, shocking. Yes, I hope Trump fails to implement the dangerous policies he has endorsed — his abandonment of international alliances; his cruel plan for mass deportations; his dangerous rhetoric about locking up opponents, opening up libel laws, launching trade wars.
But to hope that he fails as president is to bet against the country. As President Obama said at his White House meeting with Trump, “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.”
We have to hold out the possibility, until he proves us wrong, for a kinder, gentler Trump. It may be fanciful to expect a 70-year-old man to suddenly display a capacity for humility, empathy and tolerance that has been lacking not only during this ugly campaign but throughout his life.
But it is possible to rise to the occasion of the presidency and exceed expectations. Harry Truman and Gerald Ford come to mind, even if their mild examples underscore the distance Trump has to travel.
A clean shave should not be a free one. The price for Trump must be, first, a recognition of reality: that a majority of voters did not support him — indeed, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Second, Trump as president-elect, and as president, must demonstrate some comprehension of constitutional norms.
On these, the evidence, post-election, is unnervingly mixed. Trump struck the right tone in his victory speech and his White House visit. He spoke of the need to “bind the wounds of division.” He pledged “to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.”
And then there was Thursday night’s ominous tweet, characteristically thin-skinned and dismissive of free speech. “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
Trump — or a grown-up with access to his Twitter account and some understanding of the Constitution — cleaned things up early Friday morning. “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country.”
The cynical way to understand this about-face is that Thursday Night Trump is the real, unexpurgated Trump; and Friday Morning Trump is the spin-doctored version. That this is almost certainly accurate — no one thinks Trump woke up and thought better of his intemperate words on his own — does not answer the more salient question: Which Trump will emerge as president?
And will he assemble a Team of Inciters that inflames his worst instincts or a Team of Naysayers that tempers them? On Wednesday morning Trump spoke not of the Hillary Clinton who should be behind bars but the one who is owed “a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.”
Then Thursday morning, Rudy Giuliani, a potential attorney general, popped off on “the very close question” of whether to prosecute Clinton.
“It’s been a tradition in our politics to put things behind us,” Giuliani told CNN. Still, he said, “suppose somebody comes along a year from now and is alleged to have stolen $50,000 from a charity — and [she] was never investigated for hundreds of millions.” This is Giuliani deranged, not for the first time this election. No one has suggested Clinton stole anything from the foundation.
A clean shave — sure. But it can only last so long, and the shadow looms.
Read more on this issue: