Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY DREW ANGERER / GETTY
When the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum opens its doors, historians may get a more rounded view of the reality-show star and businessman who has just been elected President of the United States. After a passage that might include a ride on a replica of the Trump Tower escalator, and possibly a chance to contemplate the six-foot-tall portrait of Trump for which a Trump charity paid twenty thousand dollars, researchers in the archives may be able to study notes from conversations, minutes of meetings, and memorandums to staff, friends, and family. The advent of e-mail has made the project of a Presidential library more of a challenge, and the effect of the Twitter era is unknown, but there will always be a human factor, and telling personal glimpses.
For those anticipating a visit to the D.J.T. Library, and thinking that Corey Lewandowski’s diary (if it exists) ought to be amazing, there are other leads one hopes that students of Trumpiana will pursue. For instance, after Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, went to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to talk about becoming Secretary of State (the job that Trump wants to give to Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil), he told reporters that the President-elect had conducted an impressive tour d’horizon: “We had a far-reaching conversation with regards to the various theatres in the world where there are interests of the United States of real significance,” Romney said. “We discussed those areas, and exchanged our views on those topics—a very thorough and in-depth discussion in the time we had.” More, please, for the D.J.T. Library! Ten days later, after a dinner with Romney at the New York restaurant Jean-Georges, Reince Priebus, who is to become Trump’s chief of staff, revealed that Trump “is an incredible storyteller, and he’s very, very funny”—so funny, in fact, that “he had Mitt Romney in tears through one of the runs that he had on a couple stories.” Details, Reince? David Petraeus, the retired four-star general and former director of Central Intelligence, who was also talked about for the job at State, told reporters that “he basically walked us around the world. Showed a great grasp of a variety of the challenges that are out there, and some of the opportunities as well.” Dear General P.: history demands more! One can only hope that someone was taking notes about the man in the high tower.
The troublesome truth, though, is that the man who allegedly dazzled Romney and Petraeus, among others, may not exist. Or perhaps Trump possesses the strange and disturbing talent attributed to the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs—a “Star Trek”-inspired ability to temporarily alter reality. As one Apple employee (Bud Tribble) supposedly said to another (Andy Hertzfield), “Steve has a reality-distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” But that depended on Jobs being there. “It wears off,” Tribble added, “when he’s not around.”
In Trump’s case, this ability has allowed him to insist, and possibly believe, that Hillary Clinton did not win the popular balloting in the recent election, even though, in the undistorted world, her lead is not far from three million votes. Will there be an exhibit, at the D.J.T. Library, reconciling those realities? More unsettling, it has given him the bravado to shrug off intelligence reporting by sneering at the usefulness of the Presidential Daily Brief. “You know, I’m, like, a smart person,” he said. “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” In other words, Boring! Perhaps, though, he might have paid close attention (as President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently did not) if he’d seen the Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, with the topic line “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.”
This, though, is where the Presidential libraries come in. The George W. Bush Library has statues of Barney and Mrs. Beasley, the President’s dogs, but it also holds documents that would lead a researcher to that Presidential Daily Brief. The Nixon Library, in Yorba Linda, California, has seen battles between guardians of the past, at the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees archival records and some exhibits, and the Nixon Foundation, which mostly wants to celebrate the former President. Today, a visitor will find celebration enough, but reality and history, which includes the Watergate scandals, come out ahead. Some documents in the Nixon Library offer a foreshadowing of a Trumpian time, especially those related to Nixon’s obsession with controlling the way he’s portrayed. In fact, in September, 1970, after less than two years in the White House, Nixon was thinking about a television network that might have resembled the future Fox News Channel, which set up shop a quarter century later. In a memorandum to H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, Nixon wrote, “As you know, a number of people have been dabbling around with the idea of trying either to purchase one of the television networks or to set up another network—Billy Graham, Tom Dewey”—the former New York Governor—“etc., have been talking about this. I am inclined to think that we ought to get a very responsible person to make a hard check on this to see if there is any possibility of pulling it off. Would you give it some thought and give me a recommendation.”
As for the Presidency itself, Nixon, in another memo to Haldeman, endorsed the view of some staffers “that efficiency and competence have precious little effect in determining whether Presidents are reëlected. There is a mystique which goes far beyond that which has to do with basic elements of character and, due to the fact that we have had no one on our staff who understood public relations, we have been utterly deficient in creating that mystique.” Lyndon B. Johnson, by contrast, had been able to convey an image of himself as “the hardest working President” America had known in some time. “This was created not only by his personal style, but by his staff constantly hammering that point out,” Nixon observed. One hears echoes in the statement by Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, to the Times’ Maggie Haberman that she doesn’t know when Trump finds the time to sleep.
In April, 1959, former President Harry Truman met for three days with students and faculty at Columbia University, for lectures and spirited discussions that were transcribed and later published under the title “Truman Speaks”—a volume that can, naturally, be found in his library. At one point, he said, “The Presidency is the most peculiar office in the history of the world. There’s never been one like it, there’s never been one as powerful, and there’s never been any head of government who has had as much responsibility as the President of the United States now has, and has had to assume.” Seventy-some years later, if the nation (and world) is lucky, the first scholars to settle in at the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library may find themselves starting their formidable research task by asking, “How the hell did we survive this?”