Donald Trump promised in his barnstorming campaign for president, with bombast and bravado, that once elected he would tone everything down and be “presidential.” He was elected and we learned that, candidate or president, the Donald doesn’t do presidential.
But sometimes he does. This week in Las Vegas he became the consoling witness to “pure evil,” leaving angry bombast for another occasion, struggling like the rest of us to show needed empathy, appropriate and subdued anger, and gratitude for the genuine heroics of the men and women who put their lives on the line to subdue Stephen Paddock.
This was a week of memorable misery for the nation, the president showed just the proper sense of occasion, first in storm-battered Puerto Rico and then in grief-battered Las Vegas. His remarks in Nevada were particularly poignant, and naturally attracted a quibble from the mob of another bubble, that he was reading from remarks prepared elsewhere, and probably by a speechwriter. Yes, probably. And so what?
He was not as solemn and as grave as critics thought he might be, occasionally bantering with the crowds who met him in San Juan, even playfully tossing rolls of paper towels into the crowd to celebrate the arrival of the aid. Even men and women battered by wind and rain need an occasional moment to lighten up. The president even reminded the local officials who did it that they have “thrown our budget a little out of whack.” It didn’t hurt them to hear it from the president’s mouth. Their profligate ways, demonstrating at least a lack of competence, must now be paid for by others. Statehood for Puerto Rico seems a dream far more elusive now.
But it was in his appearance in Las Vegas that he shared a heart authentically broken. “Our souls are stricken with grief,” he said, standing with the first lady, who wore a face that reflected the sadness and sorrow she had seen in countless other faces, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and other local officials.
“Our souls are stricken for every American who lost a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter. But we cannot be defined by the evil that threatens us or the violence that incites such terror. In the darkest moments, what shines most brightly is the goodness that thrives in the hearts of our people.” Surely he got an amen on that from every Democrat (maybe even from Maxine Waters, the shrill cheerleader for impeaching the president).
The president, running against type, declined several opportunities to answer attempts to exploit the tragedy to talk about whether new legislation is needed to silence guns. “We have a tragedy,” he replied to a reporter’s question. “We’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by.” Another questioner asked whether the tragedy would ignite new debate about guns. He didn’t take that bait, either. “At some point, perhaps, that will come. But that’s not for now. That’s for a later time.”
The massacre in Las Vegas invites no anger, from the president or others, about terrorists seeking to export terror from the Middle East, the spawning grounds for the misery that afflicts nearly the whole world in the early decades of a new century. There were no allusions, by the president or anyone else, to the radical Islamic terrorism writ large across tragedy elsewhere. Investigators early on discounted the ISIS claim that the gunman was one of theirs, but ISIS insists he converted to their version of Islam six months ago. ISIS is a source of lies, but is not above telling the occasional truth.
Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff leading the investigation, thinks it’s highly unlikely that Stephen Paddock could have acted alone, so detailed and careful was his planning, and a country-music festival, with singing and merriment and infidels having fun, is precisely the sort of pleasure that radical imams are dedicated to stamping out by fair means or foul, to be replaced by endless harangues from the 7th century.
Nevertheless, accounts continue to surface of other targets that Paddock might have considered for his lethal mayhem, including Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival, which attracted large crowds of fans, including the daughter of Barack Obama. Paddock was said to have researched hotels around Fenway Park, the baseball stadium in Boston, though there are no hotels with a straight-line view of Fenway.
Paddock seems to be the unusual American with no taste for letting it all hang out. He was a man with lots of legal guns and no friends, so far leaving only speculation about what he was trying to prove. This time the president was content to leave the speculation to others. He was the presidential president he promised.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.