You've seen the photo, right? The ex-presidents and their wives, minus the Carters, plus Melania, who all gathered and smiled for the birdie in Houston for Barbara Bush's funeral? And you've probably also seen someone contrast that image of comity and civility with the current president of the United States golfing and rage-tweeting from what he has now taken to calling his "Southern White House," but is really a private club in which, if you pay him enough money, you can get access to the leader of the free world.
It's a poignant comparison, even if it glosses over such niggling historical details as the George W. Bush administration's torture and extraordinary rendition programs and a war started under false pretenses. But it hearkens back to a time, just a few years ago, when (nostalgia tells us) sober-minded adults were running the show, not some narcissistic man-child watching Fox News and screaming into the ether about WITCH HUNTS! – sad, desperate to be loved and admired, battered by an ever-gathering storm.
Consider just the last couple of weeks. There were the FBI's raids of his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen; the president's desperate attempts to keep those documents away from investigators' eyes; the talk that Cohen is about to flip. The revelation that special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly has evidence that Cohen went to Prague to meet with a Russian operative, a key corroboration of the Steele dossier. The revelation, in open court, that Mueller's prosecutors believe former campaign manager Paul Manafort acted as a go-between for the campaign and the Russians. And the James Comey book tour and the release of the Comey memos, which showed that the president kept bringing up Russian hookers and the Steele dossier's salacious "golden showers" allegation while also pressuring his then-FBI director to go easy on his ousted national security adviser.
So, this weekend, some 1,100 miles away from where earlier American leaders gathered to bid farewell to the matriarch of one of the country's two most prominent political families, Donald Trump had himself an airing of grievances worthy of Festivus. He was mad at the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Maggie Haberman (he called her a "third-rate flunkie") over a story that quoted insiders saying they were worried about Cohen turning on Trump. He lashed out at a "drunk/drugged up loser" who spoke to the Times for that story. (Haberman tweeted that he meant former campaign aide Sam Nunberg, not longtime political ally Roger Stone, whom Haberman says Trump is scared of.) He insulted Chuck Todd's appearance and/or ethnicity after the NBC host suggested the administration hadn't gotten much out of North Korea. (Trump falsely said the North had committed to denuclearization.) He called Comey a "proven leaker and liar" and the memos "dumb." He insinuated (wrongly) that Comey had broken the law because some of the information in those memos was later deemed classified. (Ironically, that was the same thing that started the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.) He parroted right-wing pundits on Fox News who proclaimed his innocence, as if that feedback cycle would convince anyone who hadn't already drunk the Kool-Aid.
In so many words, the president threw a weekend-long temper tantrum on Twitter – that is, in front of the whole world.
Nearly every president has found himself the subject of spiteful attacks or politically charged investigations. Barack Obama was accused – by Trump, no less, plus a number of racist lunatics – of having been born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Bill and Hillary Clinton were all but accused of murdering Vince Foster, and Bill had to endure an impeachment trial for lying about a blowjob. Poppy Bush was up to his ears in Iran-Contra. Shrub had the Valerie Plame affair and the economic collapse and the crushing reality that he'll go down in history as a transcendently terrible president.
But most presidents – and all of those in that now-famous photo – have had the maturity to take these attacks in stride. You have to go back to Richard Nixon to find one who unraveled so completely, and even then, the scope of Nixon's paranoia didn't emerge until the end game was in sight. Here, Trump's insecurities are being broadcast for all the world to see.
Perhaps a decade from now, what happens over the next couple of months will seem to have been obvious. But right now, it doesn't seem clear to me: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly promised Trump last week that he wasn't an FBI target in order to keep his job; Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly said he would quit if Rosenstein was fired. And God only knows what's in those Cohen files that the president is so desperate to keep from the public eye.
The presidency is a pressure cooker – doubly so when there are credible allegations of unethical, even criminal, deeds floating about. These kinds of accusations dogged most of the people in that famous photo at one point or another – all but the Obamas, who, outside of the Benghazi fever dreams of the AM radio right, ran a largely scandal-free operation. But none of them lashed out so petulantly at their critics; they all managed to handle even the nastiest of allegations with a modicum of grace and decorum, with a recognition that the office they hold is bigger than them.
That is a skill far beyond the capabilities of the current White House occupant.