Leadership is often evidenced in relatively small things. Shortly after his election in 2000, I was with President George W. Bush in the family theater at the White House where he was practicing his first address to Congress. For whatever reason, the military is charged with teleprompter operation, and the operator had messed up his job. An angry Bush said, “Call me when you get your act together” and stalked out of the room. The young man was distraught. But a few minutes later, Bush returned and apologized to the operator, saying: “That is not the way the president of the United States should act.”
A small thing, but I remember it. The office confers an awesome power to elevate the lives of those around a president, or to destroy them.
And therefore, we shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump, who is a total jerk.
This is what’s so frustrating about the Trump thing. I think George W. Bush is exactly the decent man Gerson says he is. And I think Trump is just as piggish as Gerson says he is. What’s more, I agree with Gerson that temperament in high office matters.
And yet, all of Bush’s personal decency did not stop him from making colossal errors in judgment, most of all with Iraq, but not only with Iraq. That honorable gentleman, George W. Bush — and I’m not calling him that snarkily, note well — blundered the nation into its worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. And all his personal decency did not stay his hand as a torturer. Jimmy Carter was probably one of the most decent men ever to hold the office, but it availed him nothing as a leader. Gerson cites Richard Nixon’s paranoia as an example of how a president’s temperament can affect his performance in office. He’s right: character really is destiny.
But it’s not always destiny in predictable ways, is it? The people who back Trump know he’s a jackass — and that’s what they like about him. They see it as a character strength, as in, “this guy is not going to let himself be taken advantage of, and he’s not going to let America be taken advantage of.” I think it’s a pretty serious risk to take, going with Trump, but holding up George W. Bush’s admirable gentlemanliness as a counterargument to Trump’s low character does nothing to bolster the case against Trump. Ronald Reagan was a famously nice guy, but by the end of the woeful Carter years, the American people were ready for an SOB, as long as he was a competent SOB.