David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his coverage of U.S. politics.
A telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan that in one brief exchange threatened to upend four decades of American foreign policy toward China. A suggestion that Twitter, and not the formal press conference, will emerge as the new chief executive's principal way of communicating with the American people. A notion that the new president might go one-on-one with corporate executives to keep jobs from fleeing to Mexico and, perhaps by extension, Canada.
A new style is coming to town.
Gone is pensive chin-scratching; Barack Obama introspection is being replaced by Donald Trump inclination. Gone are the quiet nights of algebra homework, replaced by glitzy evenings of celebrity. Gone, perhaps, is even the notion that the White House is the president's home, replaced by Mr. Trump's preference for his New York power-tower penthouse. Gone, maybe also, is the allure of the White House Mess, replaced by the BLT Prime restaurant that opened 12 weeks ago in the new Trump International Hotel, a hostelry that boasts, in what perhaps will be the only understatement of the Trump years, "Washington will never be the same."
And the sylvan dignity of Lafayette Square, which guards the approach to the White House and is populated by sober statues of Andrew Jackson and Revolutionary heroes such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Generals Comte Jean de Rochambeau,Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben? The physical approach to the Trump administration may instead be Manhattan's Nike and Gucci shops, the Ivanka Trump jewellery outlet and the store offering the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection.
Get ready for the Trump Style.
"There's going to be more flourish, more showiness, than we have grown accustomed to seeing in Washington," says Lois Romano, a onetime Washington Post society writer and an acute observer of the capital scene. "It's reminiscent of the Ronald Reagan inauguration, when everyone was shocked by the conspicuous consumption and all those stretch limousines." As with every new president, stylistic questions abound in Washington, multiplying with every moment:
Will the Trumps entertain locally and lavishly? Will Melania Trump, who will not move here until June, play a role in the capital's philanthropic life? Where will Barron Trump, the couple's 10-year-old son, go to school after he finishes the academic year at the school he now attends on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – public (like Amy Carter), or private (like the Obama girls)?
And above all: What will be the reaction to the Trumps from Washington's so-called "cave dwellers," the permanent social aristocracy that endures beyond administrations and that has survived transitions before, including the transition between the detachable men's collars of the Calvin Coolidge years and the button-down collars of the John Kennedy years.
"I'd like him to get a dog," former Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who was the Republicans' presidential nominee in 1996, said in an interview the other day. "Every president needs a dog." Indeed, it was President Harry Truman who said, "You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog." Mr. Dole has two schnauzers and said he might offer one to the new president, whose governing style and lifestyle will both break new ground in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.
He's already broken all the rules with his compulsive use of Twitter. He has broken rules that constrained previous presidents-elect from communicating directly with the public. He has broken rules that call for presidents-in-waiting to consult with career diplomats before floating ideas such as, for example, dropping in some time in Pakistan, a notion that sent shivers through the State Department last week, or having a conversation with the president of Taiwan, a brief phone call that scrambled the way American presidents since Richard Nixon have dealt with China. And though he has peppered his new administration with billionaires, he thus far does not seem to have broken faith with the white working-class voters who delivered him the White House.
The adjective on every lip, expressed in both declarative and interrogative sentences, is "presidential," as in whether the New York casino and real-estate tycoon will have a presidential profile.
Mr. Trump argued that during the gruelling, bitter campaign it was impossible to be presidential. "When I have 16 people coming at me from 16 different angles, you don't want to be so presidential," he said in March. "You have to win; you have to beat them back. I would be more presidential … than anybody but the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential. Right?"
Even today, three-quarters of a century removed from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt years, the FDR style shapes American expectations of the presidency.
The 32nd president was dignified in public, measured in judgment, careful in his public speech. In fireside chats during the Great Depression he was reassuring; in his war message to Congress after Pearl Harbor he personified determination. He had enemies, to be sure; Republicans so despised him that they wouldn't utter his name, calling him instead "that man in the White House," and Mr. Roosevelt described the Louisiana demagogue, Senator Huey Long, as "the second most dangerous man in this country." After prodding from Ruxford Tugwell, a Columbia University economist who was at the centre of the president's braintrust, the president averred that the colourful General Douglas MacArthur had uncontested possession of first place. ("There's a potential Mussolini for you. Right here at home.")
Mr. Trump is less restrained, far more unfiltered, and unable to resist the social-media tools that FDR lacked and that Mr. Obama relinquished, reluctantly, after staff members replaced his beloved Canadian-made BlackBerry with a modified model with enhanced encryption capacities but diminished conventional functionality. "Seventy-year-old men don't change their behaviours in a matter of months," says David Greenberg, who teaches courses on the American presidency at Rutgers University and who is the author of biographies of two Republican presidents, Mr. Coolidge and Richard M. Nixon.
But Mr. Trump will be surrounded by advisers who will counsel him to exercise more control, perhaps even to experiment with an element of human comportment with which he has limited personal familiarity: a dash of discretion.
"People on the left think Trump is going to cheapen the presidency and not be ready for the ceremonial aspect of being chief of state," says Carter C. Willkie, who wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton in the last years of the 20th century. "But he has a lot of room to beat expectations." In truth, though Mr. Trump has little experience in politics and none in governing, he is a master at one challenge that is sure to confront him in Washington. He positively excels at beating expectations. Now begins his biggest test.