The day I toured Monticello, the beloved mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, our current president was holed up with his iPhone, tweeting in his habitually artless manner.
“The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is dead,” he blurts, and then, “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY.”
I sighed, turned my phone off. And I wondered: What would Jefferson — a man who found joy in books, art, history, science, architecture and the philosophical debate of ideas — make of a man like Donald Trump?
We hold, in our collective American consciousness, joyful images of presidents.
There is Ronald Reagan on his Santa Barbara ranch, riding his horse next to wife, Nancy. George H.W. Bush, playing golf with his grown sons in Kennebunkport. Barack Obama hosting the cast of “Hamilton” at the White House. John F. Kennedy on a sailboat off the coast of Hyannis Port, his smiling face tilted toward the sun while little Caroline rests her head on his shoulder. And George W. Bush driving his truck across his Texas ranch, with his beloved dog in the cab.
We have no such images of President Trump.
The Monticello tour guide was a retired high-school teacher, and despite the blistering August heat he wore a crisp, white, long-sleeved shirt and a light blue tie. From the South Square Room to the Library to the Cabinet Room, our guide told of Jefferson’s reverence for his predecessors and peers, how he preferred paintings of brilliant men in lieu of landscapes in his offices. He explains how Jefferson amassed his library, enjoyed tinkering with gadgets and preferred fresh vegetables grown in his own gardens to meat.
And yet all I could think about was Trump. Where are the candid photographs of this presidency, the images that make a president human, one of us? Where, and in what, does this president find joy?
Is he a football, basketball or baseball fan? Where are the pictures of him on Opening Day, of him cheering on his team or sitting in a box during a Final Four or a World Series Game 7?
Who are his friends, his confidants? Has he ever called upon any of his living predecessors for counsel or to seek their friendship?
He skipped the latest Kennedy Center Honors, even though they marked the event's 40th anniversary and coincided with President Kennedy's 100th birthday. Does he enjoy music or the arts, plays or movies?
Has Trump ever loved a dog or considered getting one? Does he go fishing, hunting sailing? Has he ever found joy in the grandeur of our national parks Does he wind down an evening by escaping into the latest best-seller or spy thriller?
We know, of course, that Trump plays golf. And yet, we are rarely told with whom he plays: his sons, other politicians, the club pro, old friends? The president’s golfing life is mostly private.
Kicking off the Labor Day weekend with a rally in Evansville, Ind., the president ranted inexplicably about how windmills kill birds; he called out the #FakeNews media saying he went to better schools than they did, adding sarcastically, “I’m president and they’re not.” He said he could not call immigrants “animals” because it would upset Nancy Pelosi; he called his own Justice Department a disgrace.
Then he played golf. And tweeted.
There is a line in Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Thousand Acres,” where Jess Clark comments on what it must be like to be president. “A president’s got to say, What do I want to do? What will make me feel good now that I’m feelin’ so bad? He’s like a farmer, you see, only the big pieces of equipment he’s got access to are weapons, that’s the difference.”
Leaving Monticello, I easily called to mind JFK playing football on the Hyannis Port lawn with his brothers. I saw W. throwing out the first pitch at a World Series. There was Reagan, beaming in a cowboy hat, at his beloved Rancho del Cielo. And who can forget Obama leaning down so a small black boy can touch his hair?
Of Trump, we are left with what he avails to us: his TV rallies and his Twitter feed. Where is the display of his humanity? What will history make of this joyless presidency?
Teri Carter is a writer in Lawrenceburg. Reach her at KentuckyTeri@gmail.com.