Why Trump's Rambling, Incoherent Press Conference Is So Worrying
In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, it's reported that sales of George Orwell's 1984 rose sharply. As we try to understand the colossal change which has taken place in Washington DC, it's understandable that we reach for fiction as well facts.
Another story that has received renewed interest under Trump is the West Wing. The TV series ran for seven seasons in the late 90s and early 2000s. In it, Martin Sheen plays President Bartlet, an erudite, compassionate and deeply wise man.
The show is beloved of liberals who admire the politics of the President, but also of conservatives who appreciate the serious way their political stance was represented. More than that, conservative fans of the West Wing admire the wisdom and integrity of the President and his team. When major mistakes are made (as they will be by any resident of the White House) the instinct is to put them right, rather than to cover them up. When challenges come, the response is to meet them in line with the highest ideals of American political life – hard work, honesty and creativity.
It's in private conversations rather than his public pronouncements that the audience gets to see the President's integrity and wisdom. We know that he practices what he preaches.
Integrity and wisdom are a long-standing desire that generations of us have had for our leaders. It goes way back in our Judeo-Christian heritage. These highest ideals are embodied in King Solomon. In 1 Kings 3 we read of his subjects that, 'they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice'.
These ideals remain strong today. What we want, even what we need from our leaders is that they show wisdom and integrity. We want the sense they are displaying these qualities when they are out of the spotlight and making tough decisions. I suspect this is why, as I wrote recently, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, chose to use a prayer from The Book Of Wisdom at Donald Trump's inauguration.
Is Dolan's plea for wisdom from Trump being heeded? Not on the evidence of his latest press conference. It was, by any stretch, an astonishing performance. Swaggering claims about Trump's first four weeks in office were mixed with suggestions that he was being thwarted at every turn by the Democrats and the media.
He had a prepared statement which appeared to be relatively sober and factual, but he couldn't keep to his script for more than a brief moment. He returned frequently to riff on his favourite theme... the 'dishonesty' of the press. 'The level of dishonesty is out of control,' he said.
'The leaks are real... the news is fake,' Trump said, bafflingly. He was corrected over an obvious untruth he'd uttered minutes earlier about the size of his Electoral College victory, but carried on unperturbed. He ranted about Hillary Clinton, when asked about Russia. And so it went on...
Even reporters who have grown accustomed to Trump's bravado seemed taken aback by his claims. The BBC called it, 'Trump's most extraordinary news conference,' and the New York Times 'chaotic' while CNN went further. 'It was unhinged, it was wild' said Jake Tapper, 'It was an airing of grievances.'
Not all of the media was so stunned by Trump's performance, though. Russian state broadcaster RT seemed sanguine when reporting the press conference. 'Trump urged US media not to obstruct the potential rapprochement between the world's two biggest nuclear powers with "fabricated" news about his alleged ties to the Kremlin,' it said.
Some of his answers were so incoherant as to be almost indecipherable. 'You know what uranium is, right?' asked Trump. 'It's this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.'
Trump's performance was a rambling, ramshackle stream of consciousness. He spoke like the patron of bar who's been going there for half his life. Other regulars know to give him a wide berth when he starts on one of his expository speeches. He's got a theory about everything – how if only he was listened to, all the problems of the world would be solved. Except this bar room bore is now the President.
'I enjoy this back and forth and I have done all my life,' Trump said about castigating the media, in possibly his most revealing comment of the whole event. To him it is a game. In fact, to him, taking the microphone and the spotlight and being given the chance to berate his enemies live on TV is his dream. 'I do get good ratings, you have to admit that,' he proclaimed 45 minutes in to the press conference. He used be on the Apprentice, but now he's got the world's biggest bully pulpit and he is using it. It's as if the guy in the bar struck lucky and landed his own prime time talk show.
For hundreds of years during the service which marked the new Pope, there was a moment when the newly crowned Pontiff would be given a stark warning. 'Sic transit gloria mundi', he would be told, which roughly translates as, 'The glory of the world passes away'. It was a reminder amid all the pomp and ceremony of the Papal coronation that this wasn't a permanent state of affairs. That worldly things pass and that what matters is character, integrity and wisdom.
It strikes me that Cardinal Dolan was doing a similar thing at President Trump's inauguration. He was reminding the man who loves the spotlight that actually, performing in front of the TV cameras isn't what's important. Ultimately, what matters is the wisdom and integrity which is shown both in public and behind closed doors. We must hope and pray that Trump heeds this advice.
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy