I’ll be in Washington, DC attending the Presidential Sites Summit during the last week of August. It’s a conference sponsored by the White House Historical Association and will bring together more than 200 presidential historians, archivists, museum/library managers from more than 100 presidential libraries, museums, homes, monuments, etc. from across the country.
White House Reception: On August 29, there will be a White House reception with President and Mrs. Trump for the attendees of the Summit. Given some of the challenges of Trump’s presidency and personality, some of you may wonder why I have decided to attend the reception – and possibly meet the president. Let me explain some of my thinking.
- My First DC Trip in 45 Years: It’s been 45 years since I was in Washington, DC as a 19 year old congressional intern. During that summer of 1973, I attended a reception on the White House lawn in which President Nixon and the Shah of Iran walked by me some 20 feet away. A year later, the president resigned. I was struck by how the stresses of Watergate had aged the president’s face. I attended some of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings. I sat on the floor of the House of Representatives listening to the House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford, address interns. It’s curious that my attendance at White House receptions seems to be only with embattled presidents.
- Presidential Handshake: I’ve never actually shaken the hand of a president or former president. I did have my picture taken with former President Carter, but the protocol of that photo op prevented me from shaking his hand, although I did speak to him. Read about my encounter with Jimmy Carter here. While I can think of presidents other than Trump that I’d rather meet, as a presidential historian, this is an opportunity I don’t want to pass up.
- History in the Making: Regardless of one’s political persuasions, Trump does hold the office of the presidency and we are in the midst of history-making and protocol-shattering events on a daily basis that will be analyzed and written about by historians for generations to come. I’m hoping to gain some insights into the personality of the president by meeting him.
- Words Matter: I’m cautiously optimistic, but also realistic, that I could say something to the president that might strike a responsive chord that would prompt him to change some of his aberrant behavior. I fully understand this is a long-shot, but I want to be prepared to speak the right words should the opportunity arise and not waste the encounter. History often turns on seemingly small and inconsequential events. I’m reminded of how an obscure unmarried invalid in her 30s named Julia Sand was able to speak into President Chester Arthur’s life and presidency through a series of 23 letters she wrote to him. She urged him to do the right thing, and may have been partially responsible for Arthur embracing civil service reform, despite his whole career as a political hack committed to patronage jobs. Read about this story on my blog.
What Will the Reception Look Like? What will the White House reception look like? Will I get to shake the president’s hand? Will I get to say anything to him? Will he come and go quickly from the reception not interacting with anyone? Will he only greet a few people before leaving? I don’t know how things will play out.
What Would You Do? If you had the opportunity to meet the president, would you? What is your personal threshold for declining an invitation to meet the president? What would he have to have done for you to say no? Would you agree to meet with the president regardless of his conduct?
What Would You Say? If you were going to meet the president, what would you say? Some of you would offer words of praise for what the president has done for the country. Others would blast the president for his destructive policies and juvenile behavior. Where would you fall along this spectrum? What words might have a positive and enduring impact on a man with a large, yet fragile ego? What would you say to the president?
Need Advice: What advice do you have for what I should say? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!