Why Trump Is Right To Worry About That Glass of Water
What should you call it - "Photo-oops"? "Glass of Watergate?"
Whatever the label, when the videos appeared on Saturday when President Trump shuffled down the ramp at West Point, a general walked attentively at his side, and held a water glass to his lips with two hands, the reaction on liberal Twitter was threatening to exhaust America's strategic Schadenfreude Reserve.
The same man who applied for office by making fun of the size and stamina of his rivals, celebrating dominance as the main virtue of the leadership, whose 2016 campaign put together similar slip-ups from Hillary Clinton in a dark television commercial in which she was accused of not having the strength to serve as president who looked like a longtime resident of Shady Grove Home For the Weary.
The images led to some elaborate online speculation and diagnosis, and Trump's attention clearly struck a nerve. Otherwise, why should the President go to Twitter to apologize that the ramp is "very slippery" (a claim that a New York Times story called highly doubtful)?
He could reveal his own insecurities. But he's also right about one important thing: how harmful such a picture of weakness can be. It may sound trivial and is often unfair, but when a modern president or even a candidate shows physical weakness, it comes at a political cost.
It helped sink President Gerald Ford - perhaps the sportiest of our youngest presidents; Soccer star at the University of Michigan, experienced skier. But a few stumbling blocks down the Air Force One steps, a fall on the ski slopes and the relentless ridicule of Chevy Chase in "Saturday Night Live" cemented a new image of Ford that was stuck: a fiddling character that hardly anyone sets could walk in front of the other.
He was followed by President Jimmy Carter, who, in the midst of declining polls and a looming primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, tried to demonstrate his energy in mid-September 1979 by taking part in a challenging six-mile race in the Catoctin Mountains during which he fell almost in the arms of a secret service agent. Pictures of the open-mouthed, completely exhausted Carter became the symbol of an exhausted presidency.
Or think of George H.W. Bush, whose appetite for relaxation has often been shown on golf courses, tennis courts and in the water. But on January 8, 1992, in the middle of a state dinner in Japan, he was struck by the flu and vomited. It became the centerpiece of the “SNL” mill and helped to underline the age difference between Bush and the much younger Bill Clinton.
It is interesting to note that the president has definitely lost his next election without exaggerating the effects of these moments. And in 2016, challenger Hillary Clinton, whose coughing fits and use of back cushions became tropics in conservative media, became rumors spread by the National Enquirer and others that she was practically at the door of death.
We had presidents, of course, who were handicapped by a real handicap - none of whom suffered political damage. Franklin Roosevelt was struck by polio in August 1921, so that he could no longer walk on his own. His political career seemed doomed. But he was able to demonstrate enough mobility to maneuver onto the podium of the Democratic Convention in 1924 to nominate Al Smith's name and demonstrate energy in other ways (he flew to Chicago in 1932 to personally nominate the President assumed - a political premiere for a large party candidate). And although the state of the FDR was known to the public, it was protected by a sympathetic press against any photographic evidence of its disability.
In the television age, John F. Kennedy offers a particularly insightful case study. He was the living symbol of the "new generation" of leaders, the war hero who promised to "get America moving again", the Avatar of the "Force" who sponsored 50-mile hikes and his family with tough outdoor activities how sailing has been linked, tennis and backyard soccer games. In reality, JFK was affected by all sorts of diseases - Addison's disease, colitis, ulcers, urinary tract infections and a back that kept him in chronic pain. But Kennedy and his enablers knew that any visible demonstration of physical weakness would undermine a major source of his attraction. (His doctors helped protect Kennedy's condition from the press.)
Is this just a demonstration of how the picture has replaced reality today? Occupation with physical strength is certainly not new. Trump whips his strength and stamina, relying on a public fixation that has literally been part of our policy from the start. Of course George Washington would be our first president; He not only commanded the victorious army, but was one of the greatest public figures at the time. The United States has consistently turned to military heroes as presidential candidates, from Andrew Jackson to Zachary Taylor to Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and JFK. (Of course, it doesn't always work, or John Kerry, a great military veterinarian, pilot, and impressive athlete, would have left in the 2004 elections.)
The desire for strength is certainly part of what was left over from antiquity when we wanted a leader who could ward off looters from across the hill, but it still plays a role in the less rational part of our decision making. Since 1900, the larger candidate has won two thirds of the presidential race. This may explain why Donald Trump kept appearing behind Clinton during the 2016 City Hall debate, as if he wanted to dramatize his stature.
Yes, it may seem absurd to argue that in a time of pandemic, economic catastrophe, racial justice and a president who often breaks the norms of a constitutional republic, a few video images should really occupy either the president or the president his critics. But Donald Trump has a keen sense of knowing what matters - not what the experts say or what the citizenship course tells you, but what really stays with the people. And history says he's right to worry about it.
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