Lyndon Johnson once pulled up his shirt and jacket to show reporters the scars from his gall bladder surgery.
Andrew Jackson’s parrot got booted from his funeral for tweeting obscenities, or so the legend goes.
The definition of acting “presidential” – for denizens of the White House and even their pets – has, at times, been stretched. But as Donald Trump struggles with admonitions from advisers who want the pugnacious Republican front-runner to ratchet back his freewheeling bombast, those who study the presidency say he’s got a long way to go.
“Whatever presidential is, it’s not Donald Trump,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “The president needs to have a certain presence and respect and not when they don’t like things, say crazy things. You have to have discipline and I don’t know that he does.”
As Trump increasingly appears headed for the Republican presidential nomination, calls for him to tone down his campaign rhetoric – the cursing, the mocking and the insults – have spread. Trump himself acknowledges that his wife, Melania, and his daughter, Ivanka, “beg” him to be more presidential. And campaign advisers last week promised nervous Republican brass that they’d be seeing a change in tone.
But that’s mostly not happened with Trump, who notes with accuracy that his brash style has gotten him this far. His unpresidential demeanor this week: mocking Republican rival John Kasich’s table manners, accusing the Ohio Republican governor of eating like a “slob” and joking that other senators view rival Ted Cruz as a “pain in the a..”
Presidential scholars say the occasional incident aside – most presidents have presented themselves to the public, as well, presidential.
There are those times away from the cameras, of course. Johnson conducted business from the toilet, with the door open. Bill Clinton had sexual relations in the West Wing with Monica Lewinsky. And when audiotapes of conversations between Richard Nixon and White House aides surfaced, Americans were aghast at the frequency at which the 37th president cursed.
“Nixon was very dignified in public and when the tapes were out, here were these everyday conversations and Nixon is just swearing and swearing and being critical of blacks and Jews,” said George Edwards, a political science professor and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.
LBJ also had a reputation for being blunt and rough-hewn, but his public demeanor was more refined, Edwards said.
“In general, most presidents have acted with dignity,” Edwards said. “You don’t swear, you don’t insult women and minorities and you act with a certain degree of balance and reflect on your remarks. That does not seem to be Mr. Trump’s forte.”
Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee native, was the first president of modest means, unlike the previous six presidents, largely the products of Virginia plantations and Harvard Law School. But Jackson was “very self-consciously a gentleman,” said Daniel Feller, a professor and director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee. “He had acquired the manners of a gentleman, he had acquired the tastes of a gentleman. That was part of what it meant to be making it in America.”
Political experts say Trump’s bluster is likely to be a leadership problem.
“He naturally presents himself in a kind of rough and tumble, no holds barred, say anything that comes to the top of his brain…his speeches tend to be off the cuff and he often doesn’t finish a sentence before his mind leads on to another tangent that’s related to what he’s talking about,” said Chris Arterton, founding dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
But, he added, “presidents and being presidential means, in some ways, laying out a series of ideas in a very logical way with supporting evidence in a way that people can follow.”
Trump has mocked the concept of being “presidential,” and says it’s “much easier than being the way I am – it takes much less energy.”
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he said last week that people would be “so bored” with a presidential Trump, that instead of drawing thousands “I’ll have about 150 people, and they’ll say, but, boy, he really looks presidential.”
That’s just fine with Trump fans, who don’t much want to see their man change much, anyhow.
Being presidential means “more bull.... comes out of a candidate’s mouth,” said Ben Johnson, a 72-year-old West Goshen, Pennsylvania, native who caught Trump at a rally outside Philadelphia earlier this week.
“I’m for Trump being Trump – the bombast, the ‘tell it like it is,’” Johnson said. “That’s what got him this far.”
Still, Johnson said he wouldn’t oppose Trump dialing back his behavior “a tad.” But, he added, “he shouldn’t stop calling Ted Cruz a liar.”
Elvis McLaughlin, 59, said Trump “should stay the course” in demeanor and tone.
But Trump fares better with male voters than female, and McLaughlin’s wife, Kim, 49, said she’d like to see more manners. To her, being presidential means appearing refined and inclusive, she said: “To appeal to everyone, not just Republicans.”
Trump, she said, “needs to refine himself. I think if he makes the pivot, it will help.”
Still, Trump argues that his brand got him where he is and Greg Sleeman, a 49-year-old Trump supporter from Unionville, Pennsylvania, worries that if Trump tones it down, his most fervent supporters might construe it as Trump becoming “politically correct, doing things that the establishment wants him to do.
“When some people think ‘appearing presidential,’ they think status quo,” Sleeman said.
He’s not worried that Trump would too slavishly follow the advice of the new people he’s hired.
In the end, Sleeman predicts: “I think Donald Trump will do what he wants to do.”
Eric Poshka, 20, a University of Delaware finance major, said Trump seems plenty presidential to him. The real estate tycoon speaks his mind with conviction and certainty, he said.
But Poshka acknowledged that Trump perhaps “needs to tone it down a bit” – beginning with ditching the baseball cap emblazoned with his campaign logo.
“I get the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan,” Poshka said. “But maybe he should take the hat off.”