President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 23. Photo: Evan Vucci/Associated Press
My son Mark, whose mind is more capacious, objective and generous than mine, nicely formulated the Donald Trump problem for thoughtful conservatives. “I approve of almost everything he has done,” my son remarked, “and I disapprove of almost everything he has said.”
Second the motion. I approve of the Neil Gorsuch appointment, the moving of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the removal of often-strangling regulations from much commerce, the opening of the Keystone pipeline, the tax-reform law, and more.
I disapprove of the bragging tweets, the touchiness, the crude put-downs of anyone who disagrees with him (“Little Marco, ” “insecure Oprah, ” “Sloppy Steve, ” and the rest), the unrestrained vulgarity. America has had ignorant, corrupt, vain, lazy presidents before, but in Donald Trump we have the first president who is a genuine boor.
In many realms of life, a boor’s rude, unmannerly nature can be forgivable. A wise stockbroker, who makes his clients lots of money, might get away with being a boor. A boorish winning football coach— Mike Ditka, take a bow—is livable if not likable. Showbiz has never been without its boors, from George Jessel to Whoopi Goldberg. Even a boorish friend is possible, if he is also loyal, generous and honorable. But a boorish president of the United States presents a problem.
The presidency, like the monarchy in England, has a symbolic along with a practical aspect. The president is meant to represent the nation at its best. What precisely that means can vary greatly in a country as wide and differentiated as ours. Dwight David Eisenhower was a different model of our best than was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Harry S. Truman was different again, and yet in his own way he represented the country, in its Middle Western, small-business, common-sensical strain.
No one expects the president to be perfect. Nonetheless, it is disappointing when his imperfections are glaringly on display. Hence Bill Cinton’s fraternity-boy high jinks in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky was not a mere misdemeanor, a contretemps, but a disgrace, which left a permanent blot on what was in many ways a successful presidency.
The obverse of Donald Trump’s presidency for me was that of Barack Obama. To flip my son’s formulation, I approved of almost everything Mr. Obama said, and I disapproved of almost everything he did. He made a wretched nuclear deal with Iran, initiated a hopelessly cumbersome health-care law, deserted Israel at the United Nations, and did more to exacerbate than to alleviate race relations. Yet no hint of corruption, no sexual scandal of any sort, clings to Mr. Obama, a man who seems a loving husband and a good father.
I can easily imagine myself at lunch with Barack Obama, talking baseball, basketball, the University of Chicago, the intricacies of Chicago-style machine politics, whereas I cannot think of a single topic I might take up at a similar meal with Donald Trump.
The presidency, I can hear critics claiming, is not a charm contest. If President Trump is a boor, that may be regrettable, but better a boor with sound policies than a gentleman with unsound ones. True enough, yet this does not, as the philosophers say, exhaust all cases. A man likes to think that one day we may again have a president with both sound policies and dignified behavior.
Such a combination is of course possible, but at present more than merely unlikely. Boors in their 70s do not change. Donald Trump is incorrigible. Not even John Kelly, a tough retired Marine Corps general, has been able to whip him into anything resembling presidential shape. With Mr. Trump, what we see is what we get, and what we get distinctly isn’t Cary Grant. And we have three more years, possibly seven, to live it.
What is to be done? I wonder if we might start with journalism. What if American reporters began by ignoring Mr. Trump’s tweets, treating them as no more than the belches and embarrassing flatulence of an incurably dyspeptic man? Heavy media coverage of his tweets only encourages the old boy. What if journalists also ceased searching out the rest homes for aging hookers, porn queens, Mmes. America and Universe who, many moons ago, may or may not have lain with the current leader of the free world? With these two steps alone, the nature of current-day political life would be radically improved.
As things stand, with television punditi awaiting each morning’s fresh batch of presidential tweets, and with journalists sniffing out possible sex scandals like so many truffle dogs, the coverage of our politics seems rarely to rise above the intellectual level of the New York Post’s gossip-filled Page Six. Gossip is amusing in its place, but when that place is the White House it tends to lose its allure. In fact, it makes politics in the United States dreary beyond reckoning.
Mr. Epstein is author of the forthcoming “The Ideal of Culture and Other Essays” (Axios Press) and “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment” ( Taylor Trade), both to be published in 2018.