Op-Ed: The Obamas’ official portraits are ready for White House unveiling. But Trump wants no part of the ceremony
The news that Donald Trump will likely not preside over the traditional unveiling of his predecessors’ official White House portraits is disappointing, but not exactly surprising. After all, Trump and Barack Obama do not like or respect each other. The prospect of having the Obamas and a bunch of their former administration officials back in the White House for an occasion on which Trump would be expected to say nice things about the popular former president he recently called “grossly incompetent” is probably a bridge too far. Even for a former reality TV star.
If nothing else, Trump was elected to be a different kind of president and to shake things up. His unwillingness to follow time-honored political norms or appear “presidential” appeals to his base. They admire him for being what they call “authentic.” Trump’s opponents view the president’s behavior as self-indulgent, arrogant and contemptuous of what has made our country and form of government special.
There may be merit to both viewpoints, but either way, it speaks very poorly of where we are as a country that a simple and time-honored ceremony has fallen victim to a poisonous political atmosphere.
There are relatively few times when incumbent and former presidents come together. Most reliably, this happens at funerals for one of their elite club, or, in happier circumstances, at openings of presidential libraries. Such occasions are always important reminders that, at the end of the day, we’re all Americans, and that the institution of the presidency belongs not to one man, woman or party, but to us all. That’s why portrait unveilings matter.
I remember when President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush invited Nancy and Ronald Reagan back to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits, an occasion on which Reagan was expected to speak.
Occasionally, when time allowed, Reagan drafted his own speeches from scratch, which produced the best outcomes, since he was a gifted writer. But for most of his post-presidency speeches, Reagan would meet with his staff to explain what he wanted to say. It then fell to me to prepare a draft, which he would edit and make his own.
Initially, we had thought the unveiling speech might be one he would want to write himself. We knew his return to the White House 11 months after the end of his presidency would be emotional, and thought it best that whatever he said came directly from his heart.
But he wanted input. He worried that he would appear narcissistic, and he was a bit uncomfortable about being back in the spotlight at the White House, because he didn’t want to upstage his hand-picked successor.
The relationship between the two men was one of great mutual respect and friendship, but the Reagans felt honored to be asked to come back to the White House, and they wanted to be gracious guests. We eventually decided that I would draft some remarks, which he could edit. I did so, and as usual, he turned the mediocre product I submitted into something magical.
While many thought the portrait of Reagan unveiled in the East Room that day did not do him justice, the ceremony was flawless. George and Barbara Bush were welcoming and warm, and Reagan’s remarks were deeply moving. Calling it a “very special day in Nancy’s and my life,” this is part of what he said:
“To walk in these hallowed halls again and to see all of you brings back so many memories of success and disappointment, of triumph and tragedy, of great joy and, yes, even some tears. But more than anything else, we’re overwhelmed by the memory of the great sense of purpose that we all shared. Well, all of us who served here together were a part of a great undertaking: a chance to serve our fellow countrymen and, hopefully, with a little luck and a lot of help from God, make our country stronger and make the world a better place. And I think that, looking back, we did just that; and I’ll always be proud of what we all accomplished together. To live in this great house, this unique American symbol of freedom and democracy, is a special privilege and a sacred trust. To work here, too, is an opportunity which few have; but for those who do, we’re forever linked in the great adventure known as history.”
Barak Obama is a pretty chill man, and he’s probably not too bothered by Trump’s snub. Maybe he hopes circumstances will allow for his former vice president to host an unveiling ceremony sometime next year.
Regardless, it’s a shame that things have deteriorated to this point. Usually in political squabbles, there is blame on both sides. But not here. The fault in this case lies squarely with Donald Trump. It is he who is responsible for staging the unveiling ceremony, and as president he should suck it up for a few hours and put politics aside. Trump’s refusal to do so is beyond petty and shows disrespect not only for his predecessor and all the people who served in the Obama administration, but for the presidency itself.
Being nontraditional is one thing. This is just rude.
Mark Weinberg served as special assistant to President Reagan and as director of public affairs in Reagan’s office after his presidency. He is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.”
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