And so we reach the end of an unpresidented era.
The reference is, of course, to one of Donald Trump’s many Twitter misspellings, this one found in his 2016 description of the seizure of a US. navy drone. He meant to call it “unprecedented.” But Trump’s mistake gave us a coinage perfect for this moment. For four years, America has been an unpresidented nation — in some fundamental sense, a nation without a president.
Yes, I know. Trump was in the Oval Office, duly elected and sworn. When not golfing or tweeting, he even performed some presidential duties. He attended summits. He signed documents. He gave speeches.
But those are not the only things a president does. A president sets the tone. He ennobles and emboldens. He calls us up from the minutiae of individual lives to the stirring vistas of national mission. They’ve all done this, Republicans and Democrats alike, those you admired and those you could not stand. Through war, scandal and economic disaster, they exhorted us to vision and courage.
Think Franklin Roosevelt telling us “the only thing we have to fear.”
Think John Kennedy admonishing us to “ask not.”
Think Ronald Reagan calling us to “a shining city upon a hill” and George H.W. Bush showing us “a thousand points of light.”
Think Lincoln appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”
Maybe, after you’ve heard it often enough, you take for granted that this is just What Presidents Do. Maybe you stop hearing it altogether. Maybe it becomes cliche.
Then one sudden day, it’s gone, all the high-flown language grounded, all the ideals replaced by whatever is the opposite of ideals, replaced by that which is coarse, mean, transactional, cynical, narcissistic and untrue. And that’s all you get. No entreaties to higher ground. No paeans to higher purpose. That’s it for four years. Four long, unpresidented years.
Today, as those bleak years finally wane, as Joe Biden takes office, an old maxim gleams like a newly minted coin: Truly, you never miss your water till your well runs dry. In other words, you never know what it means to have a president until you’ve gone without. For me, at least, life under Trump has instilled new appreciation for that which I once took for granted.
Not that I was unique in so doing. I’m reminded of a 2016 debate on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.” Hillary Clinton had just bested Bernie Sanders in New York’s Democratic primary, and panelists were arguing whether Sanders’ voters would pledge allegiance to Clinton should she become the nominee. Mike Yard, a stand-up comedian and Sanders supporter, rejected the idea.
“People that supported Bernie are not people that play the game,” he said. “They’re not afraid to blow (expletive) up. That’s all I’m saying. Maybe we need to blow this (expletive) up. Maybe that’s what we need to do.”
It seemed merely cavalier back then. Five years later, standing in the wreckage of the blown-up country — hundreds of thousands dead, the economy crippled, troops bivouacked in the breached Capitol, Washington on lockdown, the national mood sour and uncertain — it seems worse than cavalier. It seems tragic.
Presidents matter. Apparently, we needed a reminder. Sadly, we got one.
No one can say what Biden’s tenure will bring: prosperity, war, scandal or achievement. All we can say with certainty as this decent man takes office is that, at long last, America no longer lives in an unpresidented time.
And right now, just for this moment, that’s more than enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org