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Trump right on Lincoln, wrong on the other 43

Donald Trump is right. He couldn’t be more presidential than the man who spoke of “malice toward none, charity for all” in a nation divided by civil war. But the 45th president humbly declares that, with the exception of Lincoln, he could be more presidential than all the rest.

He said it last week in one of his favorite venues — a campaign rally, this one before cheering true believers in Youngstown, Ohio. 

“With the exception of the late, great Abe Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any person that’s held this office.”

It should be pointed out he prefaced this remarkable observation by telling his supporters, “It’s so easy to act presidential, but that’s not going to get it done.”

Nor is it the first time he offered Lincoln an exemption in the business of being more presidential. He was only in office five days, on Jan. 25, six months to the day before the Youngstown address, when he told ABC News the same story:

“I can be the most presidential president ever, other than possibly the great Abe Lincoln, all right? But I may not be able to do the job nearly as well if I do that. “

In other words, Donald Trump can be a more presidential president than 43 of those 44 other guys, but you can’t be an effective president if you act like them. 

This may come as a surprise to historians, who have found virtually all of our presidents have been “presidential,” in that they revered the office and took its history and traditions seriously, while still managing to “get it done.”

After assuring a Depression-ravaged nation that it had nothing to fear, Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to get quite a lot done within his first hundred days in office while being the most presidential of presidents throughout the most difficult period in our history, not excluding Lincoln’s war.

Trump’s musings on the presidency reminds us of the time John Kennedy spoke of a president he admired. Toasting a gathering of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner, Kennedy described the company as “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” 

Our third president had two inspiring models to follow, Washington and Adams, but he had prepared himself by writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as the first secretary of state, the second vice president and the first ambassador to France. He managed to remain presidential while commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition, fighting the Barbary pirates and purchasing the immense Louisiana Territory. 

In addition, Kennedy reminded the Nobel laureates, Jefferson was a gentleman “who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse and dance the minuet.”

The picture of our 45th president dancing the minuet is too unsettling to ponder, but you get the point. 

Trump has sometimes declared his model for the presidency is Andrew Jackson, the first so-called presidential man of the people, succeeding six Virginia and Massachusetts elites to the office in 1829. 

Historians say Jackson’s strength was his ability to make direct links with the voters. “His official messages, though delivered to Congress, spoke in plain and powerful language to the people at large,” writes University of Tennessee historian and Jackson authority Daniel Feller.

In Jackson’s two terms, Congress passed only one major law, the infamous Indian Removal Act, leaving Trump with seven and a half years and one major law to go for a tie. 

And get this from historian Feller: “Jackson’s own character polarized contemporaries and continues to divide historians. Some praise his strength and audacity; others see him as vengeful and self-obsessed.” 

No president was, of course, more polarizing than Lincoln, as polarizing is defined as causing people to divide into two very distinct groups. But he was also a unifier, who, in his remarkable Second Inaugural, sought to bind the nation’s wounds “with malice toward none and charity for all.” Had he survived, much of our history would have been different.

Lincoln, like Trump, had stronger candidates opposing him for the presidential nomination. But instead of debasing them, Lincoln brought his two fiercest opponents, New York Sen. William Seward and Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase, into his cabinet. As secretary of state and the treasury, respectively, each never doubted his superiority to the inexperienced president.

And so, the teams of rivals in the American presidency are nothing new, from Seward and Chase to Bannon and the Mooch. Just different. 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.