Separating Our Feelings About The Presidency From This President

John F. Kennedy, in thought, in the Oval Office

This past week, Donald Trump’s derogatory term for African nations set the political and journalism worlds on fire. It caused networks and newspapers to use the word “shithole” for possibly the first time at many places.

Trump’s alleged use of the word led to the belated realization by a number of commentators that there was a racist in the White House, as if being a liar, supposed sexual predator, business opportunist and generally erratic was not enough.

That caused some political professionals to simply throw up their hands.

Incredibly, despite every utterance since he began his campaign, some people in Washington, journalists and politicians alike, are still trying to view Trump through the same lens they have used for other presidents.

Instead of actively challenging his disgusting words and mixing it up, they’re still on the sidelines, watching and trying not to commit themselves, the way they would treat any other holder of the office.

I said last week that it was good that Trump owns country clubs, because after what he said about African nations and Haiti, he most likely would be asked to resigned from any club where he managed to be admitted as a member.

If nothing else, he most likely would have drinks “accidentally” spilled in his lap by the resentful staff.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” the poet Maya Angelou often said.

Yet, there still seems to be a lot of incredulity about whether Trump can truly be as indecorous as he has shown himself to be, and I think I know why.

The White House symbolizes something far greater than the executive offices of the president, or the residence of the First Family.

It depicts the world of American democracy, and of American steadfastness. No matter who is in the White House, the assumption has always been that the president deserved deference.

It’s a deep-seeded tradition that goes back for generations.

The way we view the president is similar to how many Catholics view the Pope. You can argue about the actions of the Church, and individual priests, but its leader holds a special place in Catholics’ minds. So, too, does the president in American minds, particularly those in D.C.

Of course, the level of reverence varies according to what has happened during a president’s administration. And, you can argue that it has been declining in the past 25 years.

We’ve seen Bill Clinton reviled for his womanizing and impeached for lying, George W. Bush despised because of America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama resented because of his skin color.

But. All those men, and those who preceded them, received respect from the majority of Americans, despite what their private views may have been.

There are plenty of obscenities on the tapes recorded by Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

However, even a half century ago, presidents didn’t say those things in public or at a formal meeting with members of Congress. They might rant a bit at a news conference, but they were relatively circumspect.

Not Trump. He (or whomever is writing his tweets) goes into rages on Twitter. He denigrates people in his speeches. He ignores national and international events and instead, pursues his petty injustices on a world stage.

In short, he does not act presidential. And so, I’d argue he does not deserve the deference that an American president normally can expect.

By dispensing with the protocol of the office, and attacking so many elements of society, Trump has let us know exactly what he thinks of us and with whom he’d prefer to associate.

Now, I think it’s time for us — journalists, historians, public officials and citizens — to be blunt in the way we deal with him. Separate the presidency from this president, in other words.

This will not be easy. The president has always generated excitement, from the earliest days of this country.

In December, when I got to see the Chicago production of Hamilton, I burst into tears as the cast sang and rapped about the founding of a new country. “Here comes the president!” the rebels declare, when Washington and Hamilton arrive in the song called One Last Ride.

I was, and am, genuinely afraid for what is happening to a system that has endured for more than 200 years.

The framers of the Constitution most likely never anticipated a president who neither respected, nor really understood the document.

It isn’t enough now to simply watch the drama that is taking place on stage in D.C, or to wince every time another group is dismissed and derided by the occupant of the Oval Office.

We have to change the way we think, at least for the rest of this term, about the presidency. That means adjusting the way it is covered, perceived and documented.

Revere the office, yes. But see the president for exactly who is, and wade into the fight to preserve what we believe.

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter at Micheline Maynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on NPR and NYT alum

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