Even though he is actually the President of the United States, Donald Trump needed to “act presidential” in his joint address to Congress on Tuesday night, according to much of the pre-game analysis. The post-game analysis, especially on cable, logically focused on whether Trump succeeded in acting, looking and sounding “presidential.”
Pundits, retired consultants and public relations professionals are actually paid good money to opine about who looks and acts “presidential” and who does not. The technical criteria they use in making these expert judgments? Their gut instincts and their chutzpah. At most, “presidential” is a trivial, obvious and useless word used to objectify one’s wholly subjective image of a person.
Could there be any more vacuous and plastic phrase in politics? I do not think so. The phrases “act presidential” and “look presidential” are linguistic enemies of the people. Perhaps they should be banned.
Presidential-ness in look and act are, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Public opinion researchers, for example, almost never ask if Candidate X “appears presidential,” as far as I could find. That is because the phrase is empty and silly.
Yet it is ubiquitous in professional and civilian political talk. After Trump’s speech, The New York Times quoted a Miami man saying, “I think it’s the first time he acted presidential, but he has to concentrate on a few items.” It is a phrase fit for headlines, as in MSNBC’s, “Will Trump act ‘presidential’ in the debate?”
Where did this Orwellian concept of “presidential” come from? I haven’t been able to find any definitive history, though I am still searching. I suspect, however, that the phrase entered common usage in the television age. I somehow doubt whether columnists and barkeeps debated about who was more presidential, William Howard Taft or Woodrow Wilson.
Today we think of the Kennedy-Nixon debates as a high point of modern democracy, the best-ever debates since Lincoln-Douglas. That was not at all the unanimous view at the time. In 1962, Daniel Boorstin, the famous historian, wrote a wonderful book, “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.” (There is no book I recommend that is more insightful and useful in thinking about the present age.) Boorstin thought that the four debates in 1960 were phony, staged “quiz show” imitations of genuine debate.
“Those four campaign programs, pompously and self-righteously advertised by the broadcasting networks, were remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions,” Boorstin wrote. The poor man must be spinning and spinning in his grave today.
Richard Nixon took a very different lesson from the debates, that appearing “presidential” was the whole ballgame. That is why he hired a television producer to manage his comeback campaign in 1968, a man named Roger Ailes.
Dissecting presidential-ness became almost a full-time vocation during the image conscious, highly produced presidency of Ronald Reagan. That is precisely why Bob Scheiffer and Gary Paul Gates gave their 1990 book on the Reagan presidency the brilliant title, “The Acting President.”
Donald Trump is the only president who has explicitly and intentionally bragged about his capacity to modulate appearing presidential.
“My wife is constantly saying, ‘Darling, be more presidential.’ I just know that I don’t want to do it quite yet,” Trump said in April, for example. “At some point I am going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored.”
Presidential-ness is not innocent and harmless. For example, a Google search for “act presidential” turns up masses of hits about Trump at the top. A search for “look presidential” leads with items about Hillary Clinton, however. For example: “Well, I just don’t think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look,” Trump said on ABC News in September.
Apparently presidential looks matter more for women than men. Has any woman ever looked “presidential”? Who gets to make that call?
Superficiality does cross gender lines. Think about how much was written about how plump Chris Christie didn’t look presidential and how perfectly presidential Mitt Romney looked. Virtually any use of the word “presidential” in these ways is within an inch of idiocy.
Some would claim that punditry analyzing the “presidential” quotient in elections is a key tool in decoding and demystifying the marketing aspect of politics. Hogwash.
In 1962, Boorstin diagnosed this and identified what increasingly has become the essential problem of covering modern, media-driven politics. .
“We are frustrated by our very efforts publicly to unmask the pseudo-event,” he wrote. “Whenever we describe the lighting, the make-up, the studio setting, the rehearsals, etc., we simply arouse more interest.”