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On Being “Presidential”

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Trump Just Confirmed Every Republican’s Worst Fear,” blared a recent CNBC headline. The “fear” is that Trump won’t adopt the mores of traditional political behavior to win the election. When asked by a journalist if describing President Obama as the founder of ISIS might harm his chances of winning in November, Trump replied: “I don’t know.  Whatever it is, it is.  Look, all I do is tell the truth ... and if at the end of 90 days I fall in short because I’m somewhat politically [in]correct ... it’s okay.”

This statement apparently frustrated many Republicans.  Their reaction, though, mystifies me.  I actually found Trump’s answer refreshing, even inspiring.  Our whole lives, we have seen politicians willing to say anything to get elected.  No lie is too great, no trick is too dirty, in the race to political office.  To this state of affairs, Trump just said, “No.”  I won’t play the game.  I will state the facts as I see them, no matter the cost. 

The Bible exhorts us: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).  Why does the word “justice” appear twice?  Because, explains one classic interpretation, pursuing justice is not sufficient; one must pursue justice in a just manner.  The ends do not justify the means.  One cannot pursue justice dishonestly.  If one wishes to attain a lofty goal, one must do so honorably.

Name a single politician in our lifetime, though, who has adhered to this biblical advice.  Name one who doesn’t regularly lie to win votes or obfuscate to avoid answering a question.  Politicians are actually rather geniuses at speaking endlessly without saying anything.  They talk, as Ayn Rand once wrote, using “phrases carefully chosen to convey no meaning.”  They “sling words together in any combination they [please], so long as the words [do] not fall into a sequence saying something specific.”

Trump is not stupid.  He knows if he speaks from a teleprompter like Hillary Clinton, he will get into less trouble.  He knows if he avoids the media like Hillary Clinton, he will create less scandal.  He knows if he acts politically correct and parses his words so that he never offends anyone, he will win more accolades from society’s “elites.”

But he doesn’t care.  Truth is more important to him.

And that’s why he refuses to act “presidential.”  Because presidential has come to mean prevaricating, obfuscating, and dissembling.  It means you say “Islam is the religion of peace” even if you haven’t opened a Koran in your life to see what it actually teaches.  It means you avoid saying the words “radical Islam” because it might offend someone.  It means you react to a terrorist attack that killed 49 people by saying something along the lines of “I feel your pain” rather than condemn the feckless politicians whose policies allowed the killer to live in our midst.

If that’s what being presidential means today, who needs it?  Who wants it? 

“Ah,” people will say.  “It’s not an either-or proposition.  One can speak plainly and truthfully without insulting people.”  That’s true.  But if I have to pick between the two – unvarnished plain-spokenness and politically correct double-speak – I’ll choose the former, any day.  I don’t want a president who talks in generalities, a president who can “sling words together” that mean nothing, a president who lies because the truth offends liberal sensibilities.  That isn’t presidential to me.  That’s dishonesty masking as intellectual sophistication.  And shame on us for placing any value on it.

Trump speaks the truth as he sees it.  He doesn’t, as his elder son said at the Republican Convention, “have to run a focus group or use data analytics to be able to form a simple opinion” – or a sentence, for that matter.  For Trump’s candor, for his willingness to speak plainly, I believe we should applaud him.  And maybe if we do, one day the word “presidential” will symbolize, not verbal gymnastics and the art of concealment, but the courage to speak the truth, no matter how unpopular it is.

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