All White House and Congressional staffers should share a humble respect. They have the privilege to serve the American people and to be in a position to share in some awesome experiences. They are lucky to be there.
So it was aggravating to recently read an anecdote about President Donald Trump and former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. It was a small story. Perhaps a trivial one. But it also said a lot.
Priebus and Trump were aboard Air Force One, flying over Wisconsin, when Priebus spotted his home down below and expressed his excitement. Here he was: On the most important aircraft in the world, flying past where he’s from. The President mocked him for it.
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Assuming this story is true, and there is no reason to believe it is not, it is another dispiriting view of our Commander in Chief.
If a president lacks humility and awe for the office he holds, it is troubling. A modest temperament grounds a leader who must make life-altering decisions, and it reminds him or her of who and what they represent. For a president to spread their cynicism onto staff is disturbing. It’s small. And cruel.
It’s not exactly news to learn that President Trump lacks some humility. There is simply no indication of a gut check within him that he is responsible to something larger than himself. There is no indication that he feels that weight, even six months into his presidency.
Trump has essentially lived his entire life on a private plane. He could easily view Air Force One as a slightly larger but less opulent version of his own. But to the normal staffer, the experience of working in the White House or the Capitol, of flying on Air Force One, of being in the mere presence of history, is supposed to be extraordinary. You shouldn’t take that feeling for granted for a second nor should you be deprived of it.
When I first joined President George W. Bush’s Administration, I sat through a briefing with then–Chief of Staff Andy Card. A great deal of his remarks focused on the honor we had just to be sitting where we were. But he didn’t only expect us to enjoy the privilege we’d been given; we were duty-bound to share it.
We gave White House tours with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, as Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh might say. We reveled in a Marine One departure. And when we had a rough day of it, we re-energized with the light illuminating the White House façade as we exited and the dew dotting the south lawn as we arrived.
The Chief of Staff is supposed to help set this tone. Instead, the President humiliated his own for relishing in a moment he should celebrate — a moment that shows he is centered in the way all government staffers should be.
During my tenure on the Hill, I was fortunate to be a part of a congressional delegation that landed in Poland. Just three generations before, my great grandparents had left Poland with not much to their name except the dream that lay ahead in America. And here I was. Standing on the tarmac next to the blue and white Boeing with “United States of America” emblazoned on the side. The moment was not lost on me. The gravity of it remains with me to this day.
President Trump should encourage such awe. He should demand it. He should find it in himself.
As I tell newcomers to Washington, if you find yourself being cynical about your surroundings, hang it up. This place is meant for those with purpose and a yearning for public service.
The President and his staff should be aware of the history around them, of their place in it, of the important role they play. This creates a culture that inspires positive action and loyalty and the type of team that people want to join. This is what a White House rife with departures and short tenures needs.
If you get to fly over your home in Air Force One, enjoy that moment. Savor it. Bank it away for later. And don’t let any killjoy tell you different. Not even the President.