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An Excerpt from “The Glory and the Burden, Expanded Edition” by Robert Schmuhl

The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from the New Deal to the Present is a timely examination of the state of the American presidency and the forces that have shaped it since 1933, with an emphasis on the dramatic changes that have taken place within the institution and to the individuals occupying the Oval Office. A new chapter and other elements have been added to the book, which originally appeared in the fall of 2019. This expanded, updated edition probes the election of Joe Biden in 2020, the transition of the White House from Donald Trump to Biden, and Biden’s first several months in office.

During the spring 2016 interview with Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, when Donald Trump talked of “fear” producing “real power,” the candidate mused on what he expected his White House conduct to look like if he won the November election. “I will be so presidential that you won’t even recognize me,” he predicted in a reassuring way. “You’ll be falling asleep, you’ll be so bored.”

In a similar vein, much of the history-based speculation appearing in the media and elsewhere after Trump’s triumph ventured to point out that the nation’s chief executives tended to evolve and develop in shouldering their responsibilities, tackling problems, and facing crises. As it happened, the forty-fifth president proved to be different. He vacated the Oval Office on January 20, 2021, with no discernable difference in his personal demeanor or administrative style compared to his arrival in January 20, 2017. If anything, Trump’s last year in the White House magnified his lack of maturation or progression during a term that was decidedly not boring.

Throughout those four years, Trump made no effort to connect his presidency to the institution’s heritage or to his recent predecessors. Except for attending the Washington funeral of George H. W. Bush on December 5, 2018, which brought together former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump, the last-named figure deliberately walled himself off from the so-called Presidents Club. The political outsider of 2015 and 2016 electioneering became an office-holding outsider who wanted no advice from or association with any previous presidents. Even while in office, he revived a routine from earlier campaign rallies to make fun of what was expected to be White House comportment. In Dallas, on October 17, 2019, he told a crowd estimated at 20,000 people, “I’ve always said I can be more presidential than any president in history except for Honest Abe Lincoln. . . . [B]eing presidential is easy. All you have to do is act like a stiff. Look.” With that warm-up, the nation’s chief executive proceeded to play the role of the “stiff,” intoning with mock sincerity: “Ladies and gentlemen of Texas, it is a great honor to be with you this evening.” In his next remark, Trump provided his own commentary on the shtick: “The media would love it, and everybody would be out of here so fast.” The putative gag reduced respect for Trump’s predecessors and showed a president more interested in entertaining an assemblage of admirers than in enhancing the dignity of the office.

In another interview with candidate Trump that was conducted in the spring of 2016, Michael Wolff, who later wrote three books about Trump’s time in the White House—Fire and Fury (2018), Siege (2019), and Landslide (2021)—asked, “Why, exactly, are you doing this?” The future commander in chief, we’re told, briskly replied, “To be the most famous man in the world.” A more honest statement probably could not be found in the complete canon of Trump quotations.

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