Surfacing after surviving the worst president

Spending all of Thursday without once worrying about the president of the United States making yet another horrifyingly stupid announcement or appointment felt like a sort of luxury citizenship after four years of incessant Trump-induced anxiety.

A photo of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building late in the day, with the Rosslyn skyline in the background.

Yet my own experience of President Trump’s reign of error may itself rank as luxurious compared to that of many other Americans. He did not bar my overseas cousins from entering the U.S., insult my religion or ancestry, send troops to my street, or put my child in a cage. The liar-in-chief did regularly denounce the news media as “the enemy of the people,” but my interactions with unhinged Trump supporters never left the online world. And I have to admit that the tax changes Trump pushed through appear to have saved us a decent amount of money.

But it still infuriated me to see my tax dollars spent to inflict those cruelties and more on other people, amplify Trump’s encouragements of racist wingnuts and conspiracy-theory kooks, and pay the salaries of the incompetent, bigoted and corrupt hangers-on who infested Trump’s White House. And then Trump’s willful denial of science helped turn a pandemic that was bound to be dreadful into a disaster whose death toll now exceeds America’s World War II’s combat casualties.

It’s usually a mistake to judge a president’s work too quickly. I now struggle to remember just what made George H.W. Bush seem so much worse than Bill Clinton when I voted for the first time in 1992, while my opinion of Barack Obama has slipped as I’ve realized what a mess he left in Syria. Amidst Trump’s American carnage, people who took their jobs seriously did some good work, even outside headline events like completing the return of human spaceflight to American soil; we may learn about more such quiet efforts.

But well before 2020, Trump’s toxic combination of narcissism, intolerance, ignorance and greed looked set to place him among America’s lesser commanders in chief. Now that Trump has further befouled himself by being the first president in American history to attempt to overturn a legitimate election result up to the point of inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, I can’t imagine how most historians won’t rate him the lowest of the low, below even those craven sympathizers of slavery and secession James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t perfect (neither led my choices up to Virginia’s primary last March), but they are decent human beings willing to seek out experts and admit contrary evidence. In their administration, the White House should not be a house of lies or a stage for political extremists. And should they lose their next election, they’ll accept that outcome. Even if you once saw promise in Trump to become a disruptive outsider, I hope you can recognize that last bit as an upgrade.

Seven inaugurations in Washington

Presidential inaugurations are better experienced on TV than in person. It’s usually bitter cold on January 20, the crowds get unbearably large, and the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue turn into more of an armed camp every time.

So while I’ve now been around Washington for seven inaugurations, I’ve only seen two in person, and I have had less acquaintance with inaugural festivities than you might expect.

Photo from Clinton's inauguration in 19931993: Georgetown University was abuzz over the inauguration of our fellow Hoya–Bill and Hillary Clinton made an appearance on campus with Al and Tipper Gore a few days beforehand, at which I got to shake hands with all of them on the rope line–so of course I got up insanely early on a frigid day to catch a bus downtown. That allowed me to watch it all happen from about two blocks away. It may have taken a week for me to regain the feeling in my toes.

1997: I’m not sure of my schedule then–my digital calendar only goes back to 1998 and I have no idea if I still have my paper calendar from then. But according to an e-mail I sent to a friend, I worked on the 20th, which means I must have watched President Clinton’s second inaugural address on a TV in the newsroom.

2001: I went to one inaugural ball with my then-girlfriend, now wife and then watched President Bush’s inauguration on TV. Although I had some hopes for Bush, the weather was too dreary to get me to leave my house. It did not, however, stop one of my better freelance contributors from joining the protests.

2005: With the George W. Bush administration’s genial incompetence and cronyism now obvious to me–but not to enough voters the preceding November–I had no hopes for his second term. I stayed in.

So is President Obama2009: I joined some 1.8 million people to watch President Obama sworn in–and unlike 16 years earlier, I did not get up in the middle of the night and so could get no closer than the Washington Monument. But staying home for the occasion was never an option. My wife and I also went to the “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day before, and the night of Inauguration Day saw us at Google’s party. (My only celebrity sighting there: Ben Affleck.) That was the closest I’ve come to the inauguration experience as pop culture often portrays it. That January 20 was also a great day in general to be an American.

2013: With our daughter only two and a half years old, attending in person was out of the question. But I did make it out to a couple of parties, one of which allowed me to break out the tuxedo that spent the next three years gathering dust in my closet. The other was the tech-oriented event at which Lupe Fiasco got hauled off the stage by security after going on an extended anti-Obama rant. Being my usual oblivious self, I was in the middle of a conversation and looking the other way when that happened.

2017: I watched President Trump’s blood-and-iron “American carnage” speech on TV at home. My only shot at seeing anything in person came when Obama’s helicopter flew over our neighborhood on its way to Andrews–but we have helicopters overhead so often, I didn’t think to step out when I heard the noise. The last two days did have me at a couple of receptions, but my calendar tonight is empty. That is fine, because I don’t feel like celebrating.