Barbershop: What Does It Mean To Be 'Presidential'?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's dig now into the idea of what it means to be presidential. Both presidential front-runners have been doing their utmost this week to make the other appear as unpresidential as possible. Well, we decided to take a walk to the front gates of the White House and ask a few of the people we found there what they think it means to be presidential.
JAKE FATHY: I think being presidential means having very carefully nuanced public messages because the press, the nation, pays attention to each specific word. And so when careless words are used, when inflammatory words are used, I think that's decidedly not presidential.
CATHERINE GOLDEN: I personally like the presidential candidates that are more down-to-earth, laid back, the person that appears to be that average, everyday person. Of course, professionalism, but also have that laid-back swag kind of thing, honesty and treating people equal.
MATT BOGGS: I think being the president, first and foremost, you have to have a cool, calm demeanor. You have to be able to deal with the world's problems. You've got to be able to deal with the day-to-day operations of the United States government, so the president has to be able to take suggestions. I think anybody has to be able to take suggestions. Nobody's perfect, nobody knows everything. You have to be able to take your support system and the folks that advise you and be able to take suggestions and navigate our way through this economy.
NICOLE MILLER: I think a president has to be proactive rather than reactive, and also be able to be willing to work with those you disagree with as well as those that you agree with. You have to be able to get along with those that you don't work necessarily well with. I think that's one of the best qualities of being a president.
DONALD INFELD: Integrity, brilliance, diplomacy and desire for world peace, a desire to lift the lowest among us up and the willpower to tax the highest amongst us.
TAMMY LEWIS: I personally think that whoever is the leader of the free world should be a president of the people, and not the president for some people. And I think as Americans, once we choose our leader, it has to be someone that lead us all, and not just one group of people.
KELLY: People outside the White House here in Washington, D.C., talking about what it means to be presidential. We heard from Catherine Golden (ph) of Virginia Beach, Va., Jake Fathy (ph) of Sacramento, Calif., Nicole Miller (ph) of Dayton, Ohio, Matt Boggs (ph) of Huntington, W. Va., Tammy Lewis (ph) of Charleston, W. Va. and Donald Infeld (ph) of Reston, Va.
KELLY: Well, we thought this might make a good topic today for the Barbershop. That's where we bring together a bunch of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. We called Douglas Brinkley, Rice University history professor and author of the book "Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt And The Land Of America." We reached him in Williamsburg, Va. Also joining us from member station WABE in my hometown Atlanta, Jason Johnson. He's politics editor at The Root and author of "Political Consultants And Campaigns: One Day To Sell." And rounding out our Barbershop here in Washington, our own national political correspondent Mara Liasson. I started with Douglas Brinkley and asked what he thinks it means to be presidential.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, I think the most important aspect of being presidential is to not scare the world or the American people that you're going to do something irrational - going into war in a willy-nilly fashion, using sloppy language that disturbs allies, being too jingoistic in presentation to the point that the rest of the world's economic markets start wondering what's going on in the United States. So it's really about gravitas, of showing that you're ready for the big game and that you understand that you have to act in a professional and in sane manner.
KELLY: Jason, let me let you take that theme and run with it. We were just hearing about gravitas. Does being presidential mean the same today in 2016 as it did, say, 25 years ago?
JASON JOHNSON: No, no, of course not. And I don't know who he might've been referencing to, we don't need somebody swings from the hip. Who could we be running this year who behaves that way? Here's the thing - sometimes we want a president to keep us safe, sometimes we want a president to reassure us, sometimes we want a president to change things.
And so being presidential is whatever it is the people decide that they want it to be at the time. It's not the same thing as, say, being a world champion, right? Because Tom Brady's a world champion, Russell Wilson's a world champion, Aaron Rodgers is a world champion. You can have multiple world champions at the same time. There's only one president, and so that man - or possibly one day that woman - defines what it is to be be presidential. So it changes after every single cycle, and our expectations change depending on what the world and the American people are facing.
KELLY: Mara, jump in here. You've covered a lot of campaigns over the years. What's it mean to be presidential?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I think what's interesting about this campaign is we're having a big debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about what it should mean to be presidential. Donald Trump thinks being presidential now means shaking things up. He says he acts very authentically. He says I am tough. I have a tough temperament. Hillary Clinton, on the other side, says that being presidential requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.
KELLY: And we're going to hear from both of these candidates that we're just discussing - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Let me start with Donald Trump. Here he is on the campaign trail this week talking about you know who.
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DONALD TRUMP: Look, I'll be honest - she has no natural talent to be president. This is not a president. They talk about me - actually, a lot of people think I look extremely presidential, if you want to know the truth.
TRUMP: But - but do you really believe that Hillary is presidential? This is not presidential material.
KELLY: Not presidential material. Mara?
LIASSON: This is vintage Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton gave a very long, lawyerly, detailed excoriation of him. And he came back with a few zingers. Sometimes Donald Trump sounds like he's an insult comedian. Hillary Clinton's campaign would say sometimes it's the insult without the comedy. But I think a lot of Republicans are saying that Donald Trump needs to get a more fully-fleshed-out argument about why she's not presidential and why he is because what she did this week was very devastating. She went over a lot of extraordinary provocative things he's said to make the case that he's not presidential. And her speech was designed to get under what she calls his very thin skin and make him blow his top.
KELLY: Yes, and he later in an interview I saw commented I don't have thin skin. I, in fact, very thick skin. But let me let Hillary Clinton in here so we can hear what she says. And then I want to let Jason Johnson and Douglas Brinkley react.
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HILLARY CLINTON: He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends, including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope.
CLINTON: He says he has foreign policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.
KELLY: Mara, do you think we're seeing something unsual in this campaign season, or is this the way it always looks around June?
LIASSON: First of all, I think we should stipulate that everything about this campaign is unusual. But yes, there is something similar to other campaigns which is its important to define your opponent early, right around now. And that's what the Clinton campaign is trying to do.
Now, there's a big case to be made against Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump for some inexplicable reason hasn't made it yet. He might have a temperament problem, but she has a character problem. Majorities of Americans think she is not honest or trustworthy. And although he has lobbed a lot of zingers in her, he hasn't actually made that case in a big, broad, comprehensive way.
KELLY: OK, well, we're talking about fighting. We're talking about leadership. And I don't want to let the three of you go without pivoting and asking you all three about Muhammad Ali, a great champion, a complicated man. It struck me listening to the coverage today, listening to a young Muhammad Ali saying I must be the greatest. I must be the greatest. Is that something, you know, that an athlete can get away with in a way that a politician maybe can't?
JOHNSON: I think so. But I also think that there's a bravado, there's a passion that we allow for athletes that we don't often accept from politicians because we want politicians to pretend that they're humble. I'll say this - I'm pretty young, so I don't remember ever seeing him fight. And he was long done fighting by the time I was born and paying attention to television. But I do know this - every single athlete, especially African-American athletes since, is able to speak out on social issues because of the work that Muhammad Ali did. And more importantly, he represented a sort of fusion of activism and politics we haven't seen. I mean, this is the guy who helped bring hospitals home in 1990 from Iraq.
He brought so many different things together with his sports celebrity. He is truly, truly an American hero, a global hero. And that's something I'll always remember, even if I never saw the guy lay a punch on anyone.
KELLY: Douglas Brinkley, speak to this idea, you know, the brashness and the - just the overwhelming self-confidence that that displayed. I wonder if it reminds you of anybody.
BRINKLEY: It does not remind me of Donald Trump, if that's what you're hinting at. What it reminds me of is just the repression of African-Americans from the beginning. Ali, the fact that he could stand up and be the champion of the world - people called him the Greatest - and that he was able to speak his mind, dissent on the Vietnam War was unbelievably powerful. I mean, Dr. King was about the civil rights movement and was evoking Reinhold Niebuhr and Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi.
Where Ali came at, from the streets of Louisville as Cassius Clay, saying I'm going to win. I am going to be the champion and would get - feed the television these extraordinary bites, a musical rhythm to his voice. Rope-a-dope is now used - his boxing style - even in politics, people say it's a rope-a-dope move. He was a role model and an icon for human rights and civil rights and a man of integrity and dignity who the whole world is weeping. Ali is truly the giant.
KELLY: Mara, you get the last word here.
LIASSON: I agree with everything that Jason and Doug said. I'm married to a recreational boxer who reveres Ali. And I think that the statement President Obama issued today was wonderful. He said, Ali stood his ground. His victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today. And he has a quote from Ali, who said "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me - black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours, my religion, not yours, my goals, my own - get used to me." He was a great man, and I think he's getting the coverage and the accolades that he deserves.
KELLY: That's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. We've also been talking with Jason Johnson, politics editor at The Root and with Douglas Brinkley, Rice University history professor. Thanks so much to all three of you for weighing in today at the Barbershop.
BRINKLEY: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Thanks, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.