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The two-dimensional president

The two-dimensional president

A few weeks ago, I returned to Richard Nixon’s presidential library in Southern California, where visitors watch a short film on the career of the 37th president. At one point in that opening video, the Nixon biographer Evan Thomas makes a deceptively simple statement.

“History is made by humans,” Thomas says. By which he means that even the greatest humans among us are indelibly flawed, and Nixon, as it happens, was more human than most.

I found myself ruminating on this observation after I heard it, and again as I watched President Trump deliver his first State of the Union address this week. Because as we look back on Trump’s first tumultuous year in office, it seems to me that what’s really missing from his presidency is exactly this — the basic humanity.

By lack of humanity I don’t mean that Trump is cruel or without grace (although these things, as we’ve seen, are too often true). I mean human in the sense of being knowable — a genuine, three-dimensional person, as opposed to a character you play on TV.

Despite all the insidery books about his administration that are now flying off the virtual shelves, despite dozens of interviews and thousands of images, we actually know little more about who Trump really is, alone and away from the cameras, than we did a year ago.

It’s as if we’ve pulled back the curtain concealing the wizard’s projected image, only to find the same projection behind it. 

By this time in other modern presidencies, we had begun to piece together a series of small but telling details about the essential nature of leaders who were actually less accessible, publicly, than Trump turns out to be.

We knew that Barack Obama was by nature an introvert who struggled with a smoking habit. We knew that George W. Bush was an easy crier who so hated to disrupt his routines that he brought his own pillows on trips.

We’d seen both men give voice to emotions stirring deep inside them — Bush standing on the heap of rubble in Manhattan, Obama speaking to the anguish of being accosted by police because you were black. We could easily imagine them as spouses and parents.

What we know of Trump, filtered through those closest to him, is that he’s given to passing tirades and is easily distracted, that he goes to bed early and watches “Fox & Friends.” Well, all right.

But what profoundly moves or humbles him? When does he admit self-doubt, and to whom? What delights him or weighs him down?

I have no idea, and neither do you, and I’m not sure those who see him on a daily basis could do more than guess. When he was a TV performer, it was reasonable to assume that Trump was hiding some pivotal part of who he really was. Now you have to wonder if the persona is all there is.

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