Thomas Jefferson collected old books and French wines, Warren Harding collected poker buddies, and FDR collected stamps. Harry S Truman collected sheet music and played the piano. Once he played it at the National Press Club, with Lauren Bacall draped across the upright with a helping of cheesecake. Bess, the first lady, was not amused.
Not so long ago, wife-collecting was over the line. Cats do it, dogs do it and even educated fleas were said by Cole Porter to conduct serial romances. Presidents were held to a tougher moral standard.
Donald Trump was not the first president to test the notion that Americans had moved past making moral judgments about politicians and their amours, and were at last like the French, where anything goes if you pronounce it correctly. Nelson Rockefeller thought he was on his way to the White House in 1964 when he divorced his blueblood wife to marry a nice lady of red blood named Happy. This was a mighty scandal, as difficult as that may seem to our randy, rowdy and enlightened age, but Mr. Rockefeller was regaining traction in the California Republican primary when Happy birthed their child on the eve of the voting. Barry Goldwater won a narrow victory, won the nomination and was buried in a landslide of momentous proportions. The rest, like Nelson Rockefeller, was history and forgotten until Gerald Ford remembered a decade later, and made him his forgettable vice president.
We’ve reduced our presidents since to mere celebrities, making them compete for public attention with the likes of Lady Gaga and an assortment of hip-hop “artists.” Moral standards are for sissies. The presidential debates have further reduced the candidates to pretenders to Comedy Central, competing with puns, one-liners and bon mots, often auditioning for cable-TV talk shows. Mike Huckabee didn’t make it to the White House but got a TV show, and he still gets an occasional mention as somebody’s prospective running mate. He was eclipsed by his daughter, who made it to the White House under her own steam and won a small measure of sympathy, even from sullen Democrats, when she was evicted from a restaurant in Virginia just for working at the White House.
Since celebrities are celebrated for their easy banter about fluff, this is a rich environment for a talented big talker. Twittering was once what only crows and magpies did, but the politicians love it because it enables them to deposit soundbites in numbers big enough to splatter sidewalks and windshields from coast to coast. Newt Gingrich, for example, who shoots with a blunderbuss that enables him to hit an occasional target without aiming, was once the General Motors of big-time Twitter before GM lost its luster. But eventually there was a bigger-time Twitter merchant. Newt claimed 1.3 million Twitter “followers,” and Mitt Romney at his best attracted only 200,000. A president who really tries can attract multiple millions.
A president with a gift of gab can tweet and execute the office of president at the same time. “I think I will probably teach a course when I’m president,” Newt Gingrich, once a professor always a professor, told a New Hampshire audience when he was running for president. “I will probably try to do something that outlines for the whole country what we’re going to try to accomplish. It will be free.” He expected to “us Twitter frequently,” he said, “and speak to the country less.” The once and never future president said Americans “would like you to only bother them when it really matters.” This is a fascinating vision of how Mr. Trump’s White House might have worked.
Why wouldn’t you want a president in the age of social media to methodically share what he’s trying to accomplish so that those people who really won’t understand it can think they understand it. Mr. Trump took the idea and ran with it, not always to unanimous applause.
That works because the rest of the world co-operates. A president has to depend on a lively news cycle, and President Trump proved that a voluble president can bring newsworthy events with him. John F. Kennedy once asked Dean Rusk in a moment of frustration why there was so much trouble in the world. “That’s easy,” his secretary of state told him. “At any given moment half the world is awake.”
The Middle East alone, populated with a good share of all the world’s demons and worms, can be counted on to supply enough troubles to keep any president busy. President Trump might have been just your ordinary boring president, busy with the ordinary crises that can be counted on to bedevil any president. But he got lucky.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times
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