Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States of America. But he isn’t acting like it. He tweets in scatter-shot fashion, noticing every real and perceived slight and attacking. Doesn’t he realize that it is politically smart for any leader to think and act strategically, always anticipating many moves ahead, like a master chess player?
Even if he disagrees with everything Congressman John Lewis stands for, there was a presidential way to handle the Georgia Democrat’s assertions that because of Russian hacking, Trump’s election was somehow illegitimate and the prominent U.S. House member’s announced plans to skip Friday’s inauguration. Did Lewis perhaps say what he said just to see if Trump would take the bait? Well, Trump bit, insulting not just a civil rights icon, but the city of Atlanta, where there is plenty of prosperity, shared by citizens of every color, as well as challenges.
Trump could have surprised and perhaps disarmed some critics and reassured those who voted for him with reservations.
Instead, the man with historically low approval ratings for a president-elect chose to go into his familiar defensive crouch, without a trace of nuance, humility, introspection or basic knowledge.
It would have been so simple and so smart to release the following statement:
“I admire the life and work of Congressman John Lewis. I respect toughness, and I have to respect a man who bravely put his life on the line, repeatedly and courageously, for a promise. Congressman Lewis has always believed in America, even when American institutions and laws did not believe all of its citizens deserved equal protection and full rights. He, like his fellow civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory we now celebrate, dreamed of how America could and should be, and worked toward that ideal. That is why I am especially disappointed in the congressman’s sentiment that he cannot accept the legitimacy of my election.
“But I understand it.”
“After a divisive presidential campaign, with charges being thrown back and forth, the job of a new president is to bring the country together. It will be a difficult task, for which I will need the help of the congressman as well as other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many of their constituents may not trust or support me, but I am committed to serving all Americans, even those who did not vote for me.
“I can see the irony of my complaining about Lewis’s statements, after denying for many years the legitimacy of the first African-American president. I have a larger-than-life past as a business and a showman and have said things I now regret. Compromise is not easy for me. If you haven’t realized it by now, I sometimes do and say things for effect. Congressman Lewis himself occasionally has indulged in over-the-top political rhetoric.
“Now, however, no matter what the Russians may have done – and a Senate committee is investigating that country’s troubling intervention – I will be president, one humbled to have been elected, and I am tremendously excited to serve.
“I would like to personally invite Congressman Lewis to the presidential inauguration and to regular conversations on how Republicans and Democrats can reach across difference for the good for the country. If we can do it, anybody can. We can learn different perspectives and strategies from each other.
“I’d also like to ask him for a favor. Maybe he would consider signing a copy of his award-winning graphic novel on the civil rights movement for my son. I understand my tweet has really boosted sales. As part of the generation of Americans who will write the next chapters in the story of the country we all love, Barron needs to know its history. John Lewis certainly had a major role in shaping it and for that I thank him.”
The fact that neither Trump, nor his enablers such as Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus thought of reconciliation as an option means the next four years could grow even more combative.
Rather than a chess champ, it seems that for now, anyway, America will be led by Donald Trump, a checkers kind of guy, instantly reactive, with a constant need to yell: King me, King me!
Mary C. Curtis is a columnist at Roll Call, NBCBLK, a contributor to NPR, a senior facilitator at The OpEd Project, and has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3