Historians have long looked to a few key criteria in evaluating the beginning of a president’s administration.
First and foremost, any new president should execute public duties with a commanding civility and poise befitting the nation’s chief executive, but without appearing aloof or haughty. As George Washington observed at the outset of his presidency in 1789, the president cannot in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.”
.. New presidents also try to avoid partisan and factional rancor, and endeavor to unite the country in a great common purpose.
They avoid even the slightest imputation of corruption, of course political but above all financial.
.. Over the decades, historians’ ratings of presidents have consistently consigned a dozen or so presidents to the bottom of the heap, including James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and, in recent evaluations, George W. Bush.
.. Yet the first years of these failed presidencies were not always so bad, and in nearly every case not as bad as Mr. Trump’s.
.. Warren G. Harding — darkly handsome, impeccably dressed and widely adored — acquired a reputation for cronyism, corruption and womanizing that continues to stain the reputation of his administration, which ended when he died of a heart attack in 1923. But while the corruption was very real, the worst of it, above all the Teapot Dome scandal, did not come to light until after his death.
.. Harding’s first year actually brought some auspicious legislative accomplishments, including passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which invested millions in the nation’s infant highway system.
In October, Harding addressed a huge segregated crowd in Birmingham, Ala., and courageously urged equal political rights for blacks, without which, he said, “our democracy is a lie.”
.. In public Harding was a paragon of dignity, and his death was universally mourned.
.. Richard M. Nixon’s first year in office produced mixed results. He continued the Vietnam War but floated reforms such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He hinted at retreating from civil rights laws and court rulings, but enforced them.
The year also yielded innovations like the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon signed into law in January 1970. The mixture of arrogance and paranoia that would lead to the Watergate scandal did not take hold until later.
.. George W. Bush has made some worst-presidents lists because of the disastrous Iraq war and the collapse of the economy under his watch. But his first year was notable for his post-Sept. 11 leadership, when he rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims. He ended his first year with an approval rating in the Gallup poll of 83 percent.
.. Only two of the failed presidents had horrendous first years, which, like Mr. Trump’s, were a result largely of their own actions. James Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor, at all times courteous and dignified, connived behind the scenes even before he was inaugurated to help coax the Supreme Court into the calamitous Dred Scott decision of 1857, handed down a few days after his swearing-in and widely considered among the court’s worst.
.. Calculated to suppress antislavery politics once and for all, the decision instead alarmed Northerners by allowing the expansion of slavery — and it helped set the nation on the political course that ended in civil war.
.. The financial panic of 1857 and subsequent depression, the splintering of the Union and the later exposure of rampant corruption inside the executive branch added to the sense of Buchanan’s fecklessness.
.. Andrew Johnson, a vituperative racist, was temperamentally and politically unsuited to succeed the slain Abraham Lincoln. His troubles began when he showed up for his swearing-in as vice president drunk and belligerent.
.. After becoming president through assassination, Johnson at first signaled he would take a hard line against the defeated rebels, but then switched to attacking civil rights for the former slaves, siding with the ex-Confederates and engaging in abusive tirades against the Radical Republicans in Congress. He closed his first year by vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, which would have given the former slaves citizenship. Both houses of Congress swiftly overrode the veto, setting in motion the events that would end with Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
.. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
.. he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
.. He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.”
He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment.
He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
.. If history is any guide — especially in light of the examples closest to his, of Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — Mr. Trump’s first year portends a very unhappy ending.
The political aspect of the president’s failures this week is to reveal him as increasingly isolated. He is not without supporters, but it’s down to roughly a third of the country and one senses soft around the edges. That is not a base, it’s a core. A core can have an impact, but a president cannot govern if that’s all he has.
.. Donald Trump is binding himself down with thick cords of rhetorical inadequacy. People felt let down, angry and in some cases frightened by his inability to make clear moral distinctions when he addressed the events in Charlottesville, Va. There were neo-Nazis, anti-Semitic chants, white supremacists; a woman was killed and many people injured. It’s not hard to figure out who and what needed to be castigated—clearly, unambiguously, immediately.
.. In times of stress and fracture, people want a president who’s calm in the storm, who speaks to the nation’s moral conscience, recalls first principles, evokes what unites us, honestly defines the contours of an event, and softly instructs. Mr. Trump did not do any of that.
If a leader is particularly gifted he could, in a moment of historical stress, succeed in speaking to the nation’s soul and moving its heart by addressing its brain. This kind of thing comes from love—of the country, our people, what we’ve been.
.. It struck me this week as he spoke that his speeches and statements are peculiarly loveless. The public Mr. Trump is not without sentiment and occasional sentimentality, but the deeper wells of a broader love seem not there to draw from. Seven months in, people know they can look to him for a reaction, a statement, an announcement, but not for comfort, inspiration, higher meaning.
.. After the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., two years ago, the great and immediate moral leaders were the victims’ families, whose words at the shooter’s bond hearing spread throughout the country within 24 hours. “I forgive you.” “We are praying for you.” It was the authentic voice of American Christianity, of Wednesday night Bible study, of mercy and self-sacrifice. It quieted the soul of a nation: We’ll be OK. This is who we really are.
.. When a nation tears down its statues, it’s toppling more than brass and marble. It is in a way toppling itself—tearing down all the things, good, bad and inadequate, that made it. Or, rather, everyone. Not all of what made America is good—does anyone even think this?—but why try to hide from that?.. Condi Rice said it well, before the current controversy. She did not agree with the impulse to tear down. “Keep your history before you,” she said. Keep it in your line of sight.And once the tearing down starts, there’s no knowing where it will end. On this the president is right. Once the local statues are purged the Tear-Downers will look to Statuary Hall, and the names of military bases, and then on to the Founders, to the slave-holding Washington and Jefferson. Then, perhaps, to their words and ideas. In what way will that help us?
.. Leave what is, alone. Be a noble people who inspire—and build—more statues. I’d like one that honors the families of the victims in the Charleston shooting.More statues, not fewer; more honor, not more debris. More debris is the last thing we need.