I thought I was done covering the McCain campaign, but Donald Trump has revived some recollections of McCain’s battles for the presidency in 2000 and 2008.
Donald Trump said over the weekend about John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain, who spent five years as a POW, would agree. When he was a presidential candidate and the local official introducing him went on about McCain’s heroism—the refusal of early release, the broken bones, the defiance of his captors—McCain would say that he was no hero, but he served in the company of heroes. McCain also used to boast at almost every stop about how he finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. (But when Trump pointed this out, Trump says, McCain supposedly was furious about it.)
As a candidate, McCain regularly chronicled his imperfections both on the record and off. Some of this was false modesty—which McCain would admit—but at least McCain was acquainted with the idea of modesty and how it relates to the presidency. There are many reasons why Donald Trump is not likely to put his name on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Among them is that, in an office where modesty was once the central virtue, he would be the first elected president who never makes public displays of it.
The swipe at John McCain was efficient. It insulted McCain’s service and denigrated the service of every POW who happened to get captured. It invited brutal investigations into Trump’s lack of service to his country. And it showcased a brilliant facet of Donald Trump’s ego—one of many that have shined brightly since he became the first candidate to join a presidential campaign by escalator.
Trump lashed out because he was irritated at McCain and peeved at interviewer Frank Luntz for interrupting him. Called on it afterward, he tried to turn the moment into a debate about McCain’s treatment of veterans. On the Dana Loesch radio show on Monday Trump proclaimed, “Nobody has done more for the vets than I have”—which, according to Trump, means serving as co-chairman of the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, contributing over $1 million, and financing and serving as the grand marshal of the 1995 Nation’s Day Parade.
It’s likely that a few more people have done more for the vets, but this is a familiar retort from the candidate whose usual response to controversy is to reflect on his own personal greatness. Upon concluding the interview Trump boasted to Luntz: “I get standing ovations, the other candidates don’t.” In future press appearances, Trump has insisted he won “the biggest standing ovation” of the day, and his press release continued this point: “Mr. Trump left to a long lasting standing ovation, which will be by far the biggest ovation of the weekend, and much congratulatory praise.”
That isn’t so, says pollster Luntz, who says other candidates received bigger ovations. (Video evidence supports Luntz’s account.) This would seem an insignificant point, but no measure is too small when it comes to heralding the greatness that is Donald Trump. When Trump filed his financial disclosure forms with the Federal Elections Commission last week, the first line issued an advisory: “This report was not designed for a man of Mr. Trump’s massive wealth.” It then printed his purported net worth in all-caps: “TEN BILLION DOLLARS.”
This attention to the self would shock the founders and the first dozen or so American presidents. They never campaigned for the office of the presidency. To pursue the office meant you cared more about yourself and your ambition than the people. Modesty was the key sign of virtue for a president. “Popular campaigning was not only dangerous,” writes Gil Troy in See How They Ran, “it was improper, illegitimate, and unnecessary. Candidates … simply had to allow those who knew them to recognize their virtue.”
That has changed, obviously. In many ways, modern presidential candidates live a life that Donald Trump has already lived as a civilian. They spend their time in places where their names are plastered on all available surfaces. They speak in the first person and boast about their achievements. They spend time in the company of the vastly wealthy.
But that’s where the similarities end. The traditional candidate puts him- or herself forward in order to promote a program of ideas. For Donald Trump, he is the program. As Hank Sheinkopf said in the New York Times Monday: “His real business is giving out his name as a franchise … His business is being Donald Trump.” Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “His only discernible principle is the promotion of his personal brand.”
The reason the founders cared so much about modesty, and the reason we expect a sliver of it today in candidates, is that presidents have enormous power. When they are alone with that power, we hope they exercise it in the service of the nation and not in their personal ambitions, grudges, or flights of fancy. The founders also recognized that only ambitious men would rise through the political ranks, so a president needed some internal governor in addition to the structural ones the founders created through the separation of powers.
Two hundred and twenty-six years ago, George Washington didn’t want to be president but took the job because he cared more about his country than himself. That’s a different way to get your name on a slab of granite.
Update, July 21, 2015: Due to a production error, the final paragraph of this article was originally omitted.