I drove past the White House the other day. It had been a while, and the place seemed smaller, somewhat tawdry, almost haunted. I imagined bats winging in and out, spider webs in the corners, and the president upstairs in the family quarters, talking back to the TV, railing against Nancy Pelosi, the Federal Reserve, Robert S. Mueller III, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, Stormy Daniels and . . . who am I forgetting? Oh, yes, Barack Obama for, well, everything.
The car slowed. I thought I heard a wail from the upper floor: President Trump going mad.
Or maybe I am. I would not be surprised. Trump has that effect on people. It’s hard to believe we’re into another year and he’s still the president of the United States. The shock of it has not worn off. He has never achieved normalcy. Often, when I see him on TV, I react with a kind of nausea: Him! How? I know, the electoral college. I know, a slice of three states. Yes, yes, but how did we elect such a dummy, such a liar, such a baby, such a fool, such a dirty man? He walks the same halls Abraham Lincoln did. He sleeps where the Roosevelts did. He bathes where the visiting Winston Churchill did. Would Churchill have ever visited this president?
Trump has soiled America. He has not made it greater but, in a word, whose need is now apparent, worser. The America that previous presidents boasted about — Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” — is now a slum among nations. The goodness of the American people, another refrain of presidents past, is now a mere memory. But American goodness was always like the banner that tour guides held up: Follow me. Follow the United States because we saved Europe from the Nazis and Asia from Imperial Japan — and then Europe again, this time from the Stalinist thugs of Soviet communism. We saved Berlin with an airlift and eradicated polio with a vaccine. We thought we were good people. We thought we were great people.
Trump wants to make America great again. It is an old presidential refrain. John F. Kennedy used it over and over again in his 1960 campaign against Richard M. Nixon. “This is a great country,” he’d say. “But I think it could be a greater country . . . I think it’s time America started moving again.”
The amazing thing is that the previous administration had been Dwight D. Eisenhower’s. Looking back now, that era is known for a kind of kitschy middle-class affluence: the huge cars, the creep of suburbia, the martinis of “Mad Men” and, in general, a sense that things were pretty good — for white men in particular. But, overall, with no war and a thriving economy, things may never have been better.
The reason the brief Kennedy presidency still shines — despite the steady involvement in Vietnam and the messiness of his private life — is not just his image of high glamour but the urgency of his rhetoric. His call to follow his own example, his call to do good, his call to government service was compelling. Contrast it with Trump’s disparagement of federal workers. Kennedy asked; Kennedy asked not. Presidents have measured themselves against him ever since.
Not Trump, though. He is a rhetorical pratfall. His soul is dark. His vision is to shrink the traditional American spirit. He offers the world no moral leadership and slaps the back of authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin. He lies with every breath — not because he must, as Eisenhower did about the downing of Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 spy plane — because it’s the easier course. There’s not a parent out there who wants his or her child to be like Trump.
Trump’s one certain achievement will be to leave his successor an America that will become greater just by his leaving office. A president who does not lie, who does not try to buy the silence of a porn star, who makes his taxes public, who leaves moneymaking behind, who does not turn his political party into a beer-hall collection of ideological goons, who rages at the murder of a journalist by a foreign country, who respects the importance of a free press . . . such a president will make America greater just by showing up.
Now, though, as I pass the White House, it looks sad, the home of a hoarder — lies and scandals and crimes spilling out of the closets and Trump tweeting some inanity. It’s a madhouse that I’ve conjured. It’s a madman we’ve elected.
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