Last week, two interviews highlighted the stark difference in style, character and vision between former President Obama and President Trump.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. So began the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, opening in 1775, a time “so far like the present period” that is also rather accurately compared to the current day. Those qualities of wisdom and foolishness mark the reception of two interviews released last week.
The first of the two interviews was hosted by none other than Britain’s Prince Harry, who interviewed Barack Obama at the Invictus Games in Toronto last September. The former President spoke candidly about his private life after leaving the White House, touching on matters like social media and his new role as a mentor for young people.
“I’m really obsessed now with training the next generation of leaders to be able to make their mark on the world,” he said. “One way I’ve described it is that I think when you’re in politics directly, then you’re a player on the field, and there’s some element of that you’ll never be able to duplicate—the excitement and the thrill and sometimes the agony that goes along with being on the field. And now I’m making that transition to some degree as a coach. And that has its own demands and its own responsibilities and its own impact. Being a great coach is often times as satisfying as being a great player but it’s a different role. That’s how I’m transitioning.”
Looking back on his time as President, Obama was thoughtful. “One of the metaphors that was used for the presidency is that you are a relay runner. There is a sense sometimes in any position of leadership that you by yourself do certain things and then it’s over, but I always viewed it as taking the baton from a whole range of people who had come before me, some of whom had been heroic, some of whom had screwed up. But wherever you were in the race, if you ran hard and you did your best, and then you were able to pass that baton off successfully, with the country or the world a little bit better off than when you got there, then you could take some pride in that, and I think that we were able to do that.”
One could be forgiven for blinking back some wistful nostalgia for those days, seemingly so long ago, when we had a President that spoke with grace and civility. This is doubly true after choking down the second of two interviews, an impromptu half-hour granted by an unguarded President Trump to Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times.
Donald Trump: I Have ‘Absolute Right’ To Do What I Want With DOJ.
Trump spent much of the interview obsessing on allegations of collusion with the Russians during the election, denying and deflecting blame while mentioning the issue a full 16 times. “I watched Alan Dershowitz the other day, he said, No. 1, there is no collusion, No. 2, collusion is not a crime, but even if it was a crime, there was no collusion. And he said that very strongly. He said there was no collusion. And he has studied this thing very closely. I’ve seen him a number of times. There is no collusion, and even if there was, it’s not a crime. But there’s no collusion. I don’t even say [inaudible]. I don’t even go that far.”
As delusional and uninformed as his predecessor was contemplative, Trump also demonstrated that he lives deeply inside the echo chamber that Obama identified as a danger to public discourse. “I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most,” Trump asserted. He also insisted that he had the “absolute right to do what [he wants] with the Justice Department,” adding that he was staying out of their matters in hopes that he would be “treated fairly” in return. Perhaps he hopes for the same “protection” that he imagines the former Attorney General, Eric Holder, provided for Obama.
His claims are doubtlessly credible to his devoted fan base, but Trump’s words are wearing thinner and thinner outside of his circle of True Believers.
In 2008, the election of the first African American president was hailed as the particularly poignant legacy of a bumbling and out-of-touch George W. Bush. Unfortunately, Obama’s eloquence and reserve never sat well with a certain subset of Americans, who seemed to feel that the smooth-talking, educated man, foreign to their culture, was pulling a fast one on them. Now Trump stands as Obama’s legacy, and what have we won?
Eventually that baton will be handed to the next runner, and perhaps the younger generation in which Obama is now investing himself will pull us in a better direction.