Opinion

Trump shouldn't tour a disaster site. No president should.

Go back to Washington, Mr. President

Of course President Trump was going to mention the size of crowds during his visit to a firehouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. The only surprising thing about it is that he was sufficiently pleased with the scale of the assembly to remark, "What a crowd, what a turnout!" It really didn't look like that many people to me. Probably someone needs to be fired.

This will not be the last thing Trump does or says in Texas that comes off as callous, insipid, ill-advised, or simply moronic. He is an egomaniac with mostly bad instincts, little patience for practical questions, and no friends.

The real question is why he was there in the first place.

There is no reason that presidents should take it upon themselves to visit the scene of natural disasters, especially while rescue and relief efforts are ongoing, as they are in Houston, where the unprecedented rain brought by Hurricane Harvey has not even stopped falling. Things are going to get worse before they get better, and the profound logistical difficulties involved in arranging for presidential travel will only get in the way. There are any number of reasons for the president to be anywhere but in Texas and zero to justify his swooping in, wearing a bespoke faux-blue-collar hat, with disaster-chic first lady Melania Trump in tow.

It is not 1927. The site of our commander-in-chief emerging from a railway car is not necessary to generate compassion for the suffering of our fellow Americans or to spur interest in raising funds on their behalf. Ungraced by the executive presence, the people of Houston's plight will not go unnoticed. Anyone with access to a computer or a television has seen little else in the past 48 hours.

In practice, these trips are nothing but an excuse for cheap credibility-bolstering photo ops — think of Chris Christie hugging President Obama — and empty platitudinizing speeches. That and an endless brain-destroying cycle of takes and counter-takes about the emotional adequacy of the excursion: Did he go early enough? Why did he fly over first on his way to Washington without touching down? Why did he speak here instead of there? Can you believe he failed to mention x? Why did he bother talking about y? This is a humiliating exercise and a waste of the rarely concentrated national attention span, but it's the president's fault for making it possible as much as it is the fault of the press.

I am not especially keen on what is sometimes referred to as "republican virtue," the ideals of thrift and stoicism upon which it is said that this nation was founded. But I do mourn the passing of the American people's indifference to the White House and Washington. Calvin Coolidge is not among my favorite presidents, but his assumption that his fellow citizens did not care much about him, much less feel the need to hear his personal response to the news of the day, was salutary. What Coolidge understood when he refused to visit the scene of the Great Mississippi Flood was that it is better to err on the side of dignity — his and that of the people affected.

The American people do not need a mourner-in-chief or a post-hurricane Jerry Lewis who just happens to have access to the nuclear football. It should not bring anyone comfort to learn that like everyone else with a conscience, the president cares about them. Knowing that one's family and friends are safe is what is comforting during a disaster, not a bedtime story from the person who, thanks to a quadrennial accident of arithmetic, has come to occupy a white sandstone building located two blocks away from my favorite cigar bar.

The best thing Trump could be doing with his time right now is meeting with Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress to ensure that a relief package is passed swiftly, with no strings attached. He should also seize the occasion to remind the American people why his proposed infrastructure bill needs to be taken up by the GOP. Virtually no American politician, with the exception of a handful of legislators from, of all places, Texas, opposes government spending on disaster relief and rebuilding. Waiting for roads and bridges and dams to be destroyed by Mother Nature in her fury before bothering with repairing or replacing them makes about as much sense as only giving blankets to people with hypothermia or getting your car's oil changed after the insurance company agrees that it's totaled.

Go back to Washington, Mr. President.

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