What it means to be presidential

David Shribman

In any season the Presidential Range is a fearsome place, in this season especially so.

The summits are named for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Pierce and, most recently, Eisenhower. Many of them are inaccessible except through the most arduous of climbs. Some of them have subpeaks, challenges along the rocky path. Slippery ridges and dangerous ledges abound. But their greatest distinction, along with the most severe weather in the country, is that they soar above the rest.

These peaks in the state that is host to the first primary are well named. They are presidential, awesome to behold, their summits difficult to attain. From ground level they look forbidding, inaccessible. But whether viewed in sunshine or snow, whether garlanded in green or draped in autumn’s colorful blanket, they above all fill us with awe.

That’s what it is to be presidential, whether the word is employed to describe Mount Washington, which at 6,288 feet above sea level rises above all the others here, its shoulders breathtaking in their width and strength, or the city of Washington, 570 miles to the south.

There is beauty to the word — presidential — its four syllables each a chime, but those distinct sounds also are a tocsin of danger, for as one of the guides to hiking in these peaks warns, “It is your responsibility to understand these dangers, to make necessary preparations, and to take the appropriate precautions.”

So at this time, at the change of season and at the change of presidencies, it is natural to give pause and to reflect on what it means to be presidential.

At another site scraping the sky, that one a Manhattan tower bearing his name, Donald Trump is building an administration amid pleas from supporters and critics alike to be presidential, an entreaty Trump has answered in the past by saying, ”I can be more presidential than anybody, if I want to be.” Separately he explained: “more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential.”

But what does it mean to be presidential? To be as unassailable as George Washington, as philosophical as Thomas Jefferson? As firm yet as gentle as Lincoln? As joyful as Theodore Roosevelt, as wily as his distant cousin Franklin? As intellectual as Woodrow Wilson, as earthy as Harry Truman, as quietly wise as Dwight Eisenhower? As inspirational as John F. Kennedy — or Ronald Reagan?

Each president molds the office to his personality, his character and his times. James Buchanan regarded it as a “crown of thorns,” Herbert Hoover as a “hair shirt,” but they were unsuccessful presidents. James K. Polk, who was a successful president, nonetheless described the office as “no bed of roses.” In his congressional address shortly after the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of “the awesome burden of the presidency.” Later he told his successor, Richard Nixon, that occupying the presidency was “like being a jackass caught in a hail storm,” explaining: “You’ve got to just stand there and take it.”

Franklin Roosevelt, whose conception of the office in 1932 still shapes our view in 2016, set our expectations when he described the presidency as “not merely an administrative office,” adding, “That’s the least of it ... It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”

And so Trump now has the chance to add his thoughts, to shape the presidency to his instincts and inclinations, for the presidency soon will be defined in part by his work habits and his haberdashery; how he approaches ceremonial moments (his inauguration in January, both his address and his celebrations) and procedural moments (his initial budget message to Congress the following month); how he helps Americans to celebrate and meditate. It will be shaped by how he shows grief in times of loss, grandeur at moments of challenge.

Intelligent guidance for this office of duty and danger rests in another hiker’s guide. “Ascents of the mountain in winter are sometimes easy enough to deceived inexperienced hikers into false confidence,” it counsels, “but the worst conditions in winter are inconceivably brutal and can materialize with little warning.” Governing, like hiking, is harder than it looks, and the path is steep.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.