In addressing a gathering of Western Hemisphere Nobel Prize winners, John F Kennedy famously extolled the “extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Just above a recent, cynically assembled photo-op of Donald Trump leering ignobly at a series of tripod-ensconced weather charts of Hurricane Michael and the coast of Florida, can be seen Rembrandt Peale’s magnificent masterpiece of the third President.
It is true that Jefferson had his detractors. The ground of a slave owner is neither a moral nor a high one from which to lecture the world on the Rights of Man, at least not without some serious disclaimers. But for all of that, JFK’s encomium has merit. Jefferson really was a genius, stable and otherwise. He really was uniquely qualified to be President of the United States at a time when the world straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and many of the vital questions of the day were yet to be decided.
Separated in this photo op by three tripods showcasing a Florida hurricane, sits the very highest and the very lowest of the American presidency. Had his handlers allowed the moment to remain merely a photo-op, they might have gotten away with it. But the occasion included video wherein Trump asks FEMA Director Brock Long questions that were already answered in his briefing, had he bothered to read it.
Trump’s concern with the safety of Americans who very well may die (and later in fact did) was simply too vanishingly small to impel him to read another one of those report thingies. If by some magic it had been Thomas Jefferson in the room instead of Trump, Jefferson might have begun the day knowing virtually nothing about hurricanes and finished it as the expert in the room, positing ideas and solutions and emergency measures that no one else had thought of.
Such is one of the many differences between the man in the painting and the man sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the photo-op. Thomas Jefferson understood the question of the difference between playing President and being President. Donald Trump doesn’t even understand the question.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.