Mark Twain, it turns out, was not the only important American to have reports of his death be greatly exaggerated. In 1799, Winchester’s Daniel Morgan, whose brilliant generalship helped defeat the British almost 20 years earlier, received a letter from George Washington. “I assure you my dear Sir,” Washington wrote, “it gave me not a little pleasure to find the account of your death in the newspapers was not founded in fact.” Then, after wishing Morgan many more years of health and happiness, Washington signed the letter “your sincere friend and servant.” That salutation, writes Albert Louis Zambone of Charlottesville in his new biography “Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life,” was the closest Washingtonian equivalent to a hug.
We’ve come a long way—and not necessarily for the better—since American presidents conducted themselves with such restraint, dignity, and decorum. Nowadays, we expect whoever occupies the Oval Office to be the country’s Hugger-in-Chief, our “shrink and social worker and our national talk-show host,” according to Gene Healy in his book. “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.”
Presidents are supposed to feel our pain and comfort us in times of trouble. He, or she, is also to be “the moral spokesman of us all,” in Clinton Rossiter’s words, and “the American people’s one authentic trumpet,” with “no higher duty than to give a clear and certain sound.”
Donald Trump isn’t convincing in any of these roles, and the fact that he isn’t might in the long run be good for this country. Some presidents are better than others at the emotive aspects of the job—Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, and George W. Bush at the World Trade Center ruins. We think of Lincoln at Gettysburg as inspirational, but it only seems so after the fact. FDR’s fireside chats had a healthy and invigorating effect on the American people, but Jimmy Carter’s did not. Trump did nothing to elevate the office by chucking rolls of paper towels to the crowd in Puerto Rico.
But there’s a danger when our presidents excel at the ceremonial and especially the sentimental aspects of their office. The effect is to invest the presidency with more importance than is healthy in a system of government where power rests, ultimately, not with our elected representatives but with the people themselves. Presidential power has already far exceeded its rightful bounds, and if the presidents themselves have any say in the matter, we will only sink more of our hopes and dreams, individual as well as national, in what they say and do, rather than in ourselves. They encourage us to do so, and that way lies Caesarism. The sad fact is that “good” presidents—the ones we think care intensely about us as individuals and seem to give voice to our deepest feelings—might be bad for America.