My kids gave me a book as a Chanukkah gift and warned me not to look through it because it would just make me sad. It is the collection of photographs taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for President Obama. Souza missed only one day of the Obama years and curated a comprehensive look at the President in his most unguarded moments as well as some more official occasions. Unlike the pool of remarkable photographers charged with capturing the events which the President attended, Pete Souza was tasked with capturing visually the ethos of the Presidency.
My kids were right; I should not have looked at the book. I knew it when I looked at the back cover. Mr. Obama stood in front of his desk in the Oval Office, bent at a ninety-degree angle. A young African American boy, visiting with his dad on the day of his departure from a White House job, had used his one question to ask the President if his hair felt the same as his own. The leader of the free world bent over to give the kid a chance to find out.
I remember the outrage the first time President Obama bent forward in public. Follow protocol – though not American custom – he bowed in greeting to the king of Saudi Arabia. Other presidents, including the current one, have bowed to receive commendations draped around their necks from the king of the Saudis (and others), but this gesture of respect or submission (depending on your perspective) provoked outrage in the echo chambers of the right and set loose altered photographs and cartoons that mocked the President for doing so.
I wasn’t so bothered by it, to be honest, though I wish the gesture had been more subdued, like the custom of greeting in Japan. And other presidents had shown deference to and even intimacy with the Saudi king (and others) with hugs and kisses and more slightly stooped postures. But I do remember thinking then that here was a man who did not need external validation for his confidence as a leader. It was a quality we saw again and again in “no-drama-Obama.”
And there was the full bow a second time and I remembered it, too. The first African American to hold the office of President understood the question beneath the question of a little boy who never knew anything other than an African American president: am I like you? And without the platitudes we all mock these days about how anybody can grow up to be president, Mr. Obama answered in an undignified way that nonetheless offered not just dignity but encouragement to this child of the next generation.
The inside of the book (yeah, I am a slow learner) has very little to do with policy. Instead, it illustrates what presidents ought to do well and what, in my opinion, Barack Obama did best. They should inspire us to be our best selves, to follow their example to be the best kinds of Americans. They should insist that we ask what we can do for our country, imagine a great society, see the shining city on the hill, find what is right with America, live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.
I admired the Obama presidency, but it did not stop me from my disagreements. Even in disagreement, I admired what he represented, and especially that he held office for eight full years without a legitimate accusation of personal misconduct. I admired that the weight of the office was borne with dignity and gravitas, but never at the price of humanity. I admired that his instincts about when to override the trappings of the office were unerring.
By contrast (you knew this was coming) is President Trump. My cousin Adam, a Republican with Libertarian leanings, describes Mr. Trump as a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like. I continue to look for anything approximating inspiration. The nearest we have come is his campaign slogan, imploring us, for the first time in American history, to look to the past instead of the future. Maybe it is what we need to do, but it is a more consequential break with our legacy than bowing to a king.
Yet my disappointment in his conduct of the office might be mitigated if I recognized his humanity. Instead, he tosses paper towels to hurricane victims, tweets insults with his morning coffee and has such a private relationship with his grandchildren that there is no picture of him being a grandpa to them. Famous for condemning his predecessor for playing too much golf (333 rounds in 8 years), as of this writing he has played 87 times with almost a month to go in his first year. I won’t revisit the accusations made about his interpersonal conduct, but I will bemoan the lack of any evidence that he has evolved beyond those accusations with the status bestowed upon him.
Perhaps he has made the decree that personal matters are irrelevant to the conduct of the office and that he will not stage sympathetic photos that distract from his presidential duties. It is not likely, but it is plausible. No president is required to have a personal documentation of his presidency, though in Mr. Trump’s adult lifetime every President of the United States has understood the power of the image in advancing his agenda. JFK in somber consultation with his brother, LBJ holding up his basset hound’s ears, Nixon waving his “double Vs,” Reagan on his horse, Bush 43 clearing brush, Obama bending over for a little boy to feel his hair. None of these moments was crafted; all of them served to make an icon less plastic and more accessible.
Americans need role models. The examples-in-chief who have occupied the Oval Office have been a mixed lot, but most of them seem to have aspired to be well-rounded men who reveled in their common cause with everyday Americans. Even if in their hearts they hoped to be America’s sugar daddy with no expectation beyond total loyalty and a place on Mount Rushmore, they had the good sense to look for their own approachability rather than to suppress it.
During every presidency, the same joke surfaces about the book that will be written about it – it will be the shortest book in the world. This time it will be no joke, and not because the Trump book will focus on his relationship with the truth or the range of his adjectives. The shortest book in the world will be the photographic record of Donald Trump, the man.
Our next president, whoever that may be, will need to restore a sense of humanity to the White House. I can recommend a wonderful book about the example that was once set. But my advice is not to look at it just now. It will just make you sad.