The burdens of the presidency are so great as to make one question the mental balance of anyone who would voluntarily take up residence in the gilded cage of the White House, accept the constant criticism and slimings, and condemn not only himself or herself to a lifetime of bodyguards and scrutiny, but the entire family, too.
But it seems to me one of the consolation prizes is the intellectual and cultural smorgasbord a president can enjoy. The whole world is at your beck and call. A president need not be content with reading about the future of nanotechnology or the progress of Broadway’s next blockbuster in a newspaper or magazine. A president can have leading scientists or artists drop by for a chat.
I think of that famous evening in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy invited a bevy of Nobel Prize winners to dinner, then quipped: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Or the night in 2009 when the Tony-winning genius Lin-Manuel Miranda previewed his next project at a White House poetry night: a hip-hop treatment of the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Hours that President Trump could fill with the best of American art, music, drama and ideas he prefers to spend within the wasteland of so-called cable “news.” Every insider account of today’s White House, no matter how self-interested or backbiting, agrees on this point. Trump’s (ugh) Twitter feed relentlessly confirms it. Early in his administration, he was a channel surfer, dipping into Fox News for a shot of groveling lickspittle, clicking over to CNN long enough to figure out what to deny, then — like a tongue drawn compulsively to a sore tooth — switching to MSNBC to mourn the lost friendship of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski .
More recently, he has settled into Fox News almost exclusively, starting his days with the soul-numbing vapidity of “Fox & Friends,” and ending it in the virtual company of the propaganda mouthpieces of the People’s Republic of Trumpistan. I imagine him each night, after a few hours of ego massage by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, peering into his mirror and saying, Stuart Smalley-style: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”
Trump is a risk-taker and he thinks outside the box, yet he is neither adventuresome nor curious. These paradoxes are part of his unusual personality. Graciously offering me a Chick-fil-A sandwich and waffle fries one afternoon in 2016, he explained his preference for fast food when he travels: “No matter where you are, you know exactly what you’re getting.”
With cable TV, he knows exactly what he’s getting — and that’s not a coincidence, because fast food and cable TV share essentially the same business model: low-cost production of a narrow menu for a loyal customer base. No one tunes into MSNBC or Fox News or CNN to be surprised any more than a customer pulls into the McDonald’s drive-through in hopes that the chef has done something daring with beetroot.
The quirk becomes a problem, though, when the president relies on his TV screens not only for comfort but also for information. In a recent interview with Fox News’s Ainsley Earhardt, Trump asserted that one can “learn a lot from the shows,” but that is simply not true. I know some dyed-in-the-wool partisans who occasionally tune into contrary programming to discern what the enemy is up to. But true learning involves an honest search for well-supported facts and authentic experience. As for “the shows,” their bread and butter is commentary and spin, loosely rooted in the work of others.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could tell us the difference. The other day, he was assigned via Trump’s Twitter to confront South Africa’s government over the practice of “seizing land from white farmers” and “large scale killing of farmers.” The inspiration for this undiplomatic outburst was a cynically distorted segment of Carlson’s show on Fox News, in which the bowtied Washington toff made an ugly cartoon of a very complex political situation.
It’s dumbfounding to think that a president, with on-demand access to people who have spent their lives getting to know the history and contours and politics and players of South Africa, would rely on the host of a cable “news” program for policy guidance. Trump’s tweet reminded me of a story I reported years ago. The sorrowful mother of a man who was facing execution listened in confusion as his lawyers discussed their last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court. When they paused, she said meekly but with confidence: “One of them will do the right thing — Judge Wapner.” The TV jurist of “The People’s Court.”
As the saying goes: Sad.
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