The day I tour Monticello, the beloved, mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, our current president is holed up with his iPhone, tweeting in his habitually artless manner. “The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is dead,” he blurts, and then, “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY.”
I sigh, turn my phone off. And I wonder, what would Jefferson—a man who found so much joy in books, art, history, science, architecture, and the philosophical debate of ideas—make of a man like Trump?
Regardless of party, we hold, in our collective American consciousness, joyful images of presidents. There is Ronald Reagan on his Santa Barbara ranch, riding his horse next to wife Nancy. There is George H.W. Bush, playing golf with this grown sons in Kennebunkport. There is Barack Obama hosting the cast of “Hamilton” at the White House. There is Bill Clinton playing with his dog, Buddy, in the Oval Office. There is John F. Kennedy on a sailboat off the coast of Hyannis Port, his smiling face tiled toward the sun while little Caroline rests her head on his shoulder. There is George W. Bush driving his truck across the property of his Texas ranch, with his beloved dog beside him in the cab.
We have no such images of President Trump.
The Monticello tour guide is a retired high school teacher, and despite the blistering August heat he wears a crisp, white, long-sleeved shirt and a light blue tie. From the South Square Room to the Library to the Cabinet Room, our guide tells of Jefferson’s reverence for his predecessors and peers, how he preferred paintings of brilliant men in lieu of landscapes in his offices. He explains how Jefferson amassed his library, enjoyed tinkering with gadgets, and how he preferred the fresh vegetables grown in his own gardens to meat.
And yet all I can think about is Donald Trump. Where are the candid photographs of this presidency, the images that make a president human, one of us? Where, and in what, does this president find joy?
Is he a football, basketball, or baseball fan? Where are the pictures of him on Opening Day, of him cheering on his team or sitting in a box during a Final Four or a World Series Game 7?
Who are his friends, his confidants? Has he ever called upon any of his living predecessors for counsel or to seek their friendship?
He skipped the latest Kennedy Center Honors, even though they marked the event’s 40th anniversary and coincided with with President Kennedy’s 100th birthday. Does he enjoy music or the arts, plays or movies?
Has President Trump ever loved a dog or considered getting a dog? Does he go fishing, hunting, sailing? Has he ever found joy in the grandeur of our national parks?
Does he, like Jefferson and so many presidents before him, enjoy books? Is he fascinated by Asian history or the British poets or southern American treasures like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O’Connor? Does he wind down of an evening by escaping into the latest best-seller or spy thriller?
We know, of course, that President Trump plays golf. And yet, we are rarely told with whom he plays: his sons, other politicians, the club pro, old friends? The president’s golfing life is private. There is rarely an official photograph.
Kicking off the Labor Day weekend with a rally in Evansville, Indiana, the president ranted inexplicably about how windmills kill birds; he called out the #FakeNews media saying he went to better schools than they did, adding sarcastically, “I’m president and they’re not”; he said he could not call immigrants “animals” because it would upset Nancy Pelosi; he called his own Justice Department a disgrace.
And then he played golf. And tweeted.
There is a line in Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “A Thousand Acres,” where Jess Clark comments on what it must be like to be president. “A president’s got to say, What do I want to do? What will make me feel good now that I’m feelin’ so bad? He’s like a farmer, you see, only the big pieces of equipment he’s got access to are weapons, that’s the difference.”
Leaving Monticello, I consider the joys of presidents in my lifetime. I easily call to mind JFK playing football on the Hyannis Port lawn with his brothers. I see W. throwing out the first pitch at a World Series. There is Reagan, beaming in a cowboy hat, at his beloved Rancho del Cielo. And who can forget Obama leaning down so a small black boy can touch his hair.
Of Trump, we are left with what he avails to us: his TV rallies and his Twitter feed. Where is the display of his humanity? What makes him feel good when he’s feelin’ so bad? What will history make of this joyless presidency?