White House

A Graceless President, a National Betrayal

Unlike Trump, Reagan understood the power of humility and graciousness.

It's contagious.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

For leaders as well as friends, spouses and colleagues, grace is a precious characteristic. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s policy choices, our nation has never had a president more lacking in grace.

Whether or not Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president, he was certainly its most gracious. Here’s the close of his brief Second Inaugural, delivered toward the end of the Civil War, when the nation was a house divided:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

On the eve of victory, Lincoln avoided triumphalism or crowing. Instead he rejected malice and called for charity. He backed his firmness with both humility (“as God gives us to see the right”) and tenderness (“to care for him who shall have borne the battle”).

Ronald Reagan was usually a model of grace, with a strong preference for gentle humor and a touch of indirection. Asked at 73 if he was too old to be president, Reagan responded: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

At critical moments, Reagan chose understatement and humility, which are part and parcel of grace. 1 A former Democrat, he liked to say, “I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” In his final speech at a Republican convention, in 1988, he began, “[B]eing only human, there's a part of me that would like to take credit for what we've achieved. But tonight, before we do anything else, let us remember that tribute really belongs to the 245 million citizens who make up the greatest -- and the first -- three words in our Constitution: ‘We the People.’”

In any competitive activity, gracious losers are easy to identify: They give credit to their opponent and never make excuses or blame referees. Because vanquished opponents (and their supporters) often feel horrible, it’s even more important to be a gracious winner, showing respect and admiration after victory, and emphasizing that things could have gone the other way.

The philosopher Avishai Margalit explores the idea of “a decent society,” which avoids one thing above all: humiliating people. Gracious leaders are unfailingly decent. They make people feel large rather than small. In conflicts, they challenge people’s opinions and actions, rather than their identities or their deepest commitments. They enable people to save face. They acknowledge their own errors. They never go for the jugular.

Grace breeds reciprocity. If a friend, a colleague or a spouse is gracious to you, you feel like a creep if you don’t respond in kind. That’s one reason that Reagan was such an effective debater: He disarmed his opponents. Reagan’s grace also helped him to work with committed political adversaries, most notably House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Gracelessness shows bad character, but it is also an obstacle to success and often a recipe for failure. Humiliating people is a terrific way to reduce the likelihood of cooperation. Graceless leaders produce graceless followers and graceless opponents. Gracelessness is stupid, because those who lack grace inflame their adversaries -- and turn potential friends into enemies.

Actually it’s worse than that. We already have disturbing evidence that the election of President Trump has produced an increase in xenophobia, stemming from an erosion of social norms that counteract public expression of dislike or hatred of foreigners. It is not unreasonable to speculate that insofar as the president uses violent images or language against members of the press, or against political opponents, he will end up fueling actual violence.

Gracelessness is an absence of grace, but the English language lacks a word for the opposite of grace. One candidate is “ugliness”; another is “cruelty.” Every human heart is drawn, on occasion, to what is ugly and cruel, and even rejoices in them. Prominent Democrats are fully capable of displaying both. Of course, politics is a dirty business, and, as both Lincoln and Reagan knew, you sometimes have to hit back.

But in modern history, no White House has ever been more graceless. Put political differences to one side. That’s a betrayal of our nation’s heritage, and an insult to our deepest traditions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. I am relying on ordinary understanding, not on the distinctly Christian notion of grace, though there is a strong connection.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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