“He says what he thinks!”
Supporters of Donald Trump use this phrase to explain why we should give the nuclear button to a bombastic billionaire who has never held public office. Before Bridgegate, a lot of people were saying the same thing about Chris Christie.
There’s just one problem: To the extent that it’s true of any candidate, it’s disqualifying. Just about the last thing we should want in a president is constant, unfiltered expression of whatever is on her or his mind.
I often tell my students that everything they need to know about life is in "The Godfather." In one scene, a criminal approaches the Corleone family with a business proposition. Sonny shows interest in the deal, much to his father’s dismay. Afterwards, the don scolds him: “Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again.” And as all movie buffs know, Sonny’s indiscretion triggers a chain of events resulting in his death.
The moral is that you should not expose too much of your mind to potential adversaries. It is far better that they do not fully grasp your intentions and capabilities. “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night,” wrote Sun Tzu, “and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Our most effective presidents have abided by this maxim. Franklin Roosevelt kept opponents guessing about what he would do next, and even his closest aides did not always know. And as for Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon said: “He was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized, and in the best sense of those words.”
Richard Nixon praising your deviousness is like Halle Berry complimenting your looks.
On some level, Trump probably gets the point. He is surely circumspect when it comes to things that really matter to him, such as business deals or a prenuptial agreements. If he always let everything hang out, he would be poor, while his former partners and wives would be rich.
There is another reason why presidents need to censor themselves: First reactions are often impulsive and intemperate. In everyday life, candor overload results in nothing more than embarrassment. In the Oval Office, where the commander in chief meets foreign leaders who have big armies, the consequences could be more serious.
Just picture Trump communicating with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Okay, baldy, go fire your missiles! See if I care! I’ve got a duplex fallout shelter that you wouldn’t believe!” It probably wouldn’t have ended well.
A big part of raising children consists of teaching them not to give voice to everything that pops into their heads. (“Honey, you really shouldn’t tell Uncle Jerome that his breath smells bad.”) There are words for people who master this self-control as they grow up: “mature,” responsible,” “level-headed.”
There are also words for people who don’t. “Presidential” is not one of them.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.