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Reporter's Notebook: Trump and the Presidential Look


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan showing the president-elect, Donald Trump, and his wife, Melania, the speaker’s balcony at the United States Capitol on Nov. 10.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The president-elect walked onto the stage before a crowd of euphoric supporters. It was his first public sighting since the networks called the election for him. Gone were his hoarse pleadings for support. His face bore a heaviness I had not seen from him before. Now he had won, and this was a different face.

The face was what struck me most when I watched Barack Obama take the stage for the first time as president-elect eight years ago in Grant Park. I will never forget it. His eyes seemed wider and his gaze farther off than they had a few days before. Despite the wild applause in Chicago, a strange quiet descended. He was not smiling as you might expect. Or maybe it made perfect sense that he wouldn’t be. For as prepared as he might have felt, Obama had just learned that he would inherit a responsibility whose scope and gravity were almost unimaginable.

There’s something inherently vain about running for president. You spend months touting yourself as someone who is better suited to an impossible task than anyone else in the United States. This is not normal. It takes immense chutzpah and (no doubt) self-delusion. And then you are granted the wish, and everything changes. Your vanity is suddenly joined by — if not overrun by — a sense of shock, fear and, you would hope, humility.

I was thinking about the face as we awaited our first glimpse of a new president-elect in eight years. That prospect became all the more fascinating when it was clear early Wednesday morning that it would be Donald J. Trump. He has never been terribly expansive about how he viewed the presidency and how he would approach the job. There was even a hint of suspicion that Trump didn’t really want it. He just liked running as a way to assert his dominance and prove he could win and drink up all the adulation. (Hillary Clinton seemed just the opposite — she desperately wanted the job, if only she could avoid running for it.)

I once asked Trump about humility. It was in September 2015, and the then-G.O.P. front-runner was sitting in his Trump Tower office with his face filling magazine covers all over his walls. He was bragging his usual blue streak — about his lead in the polls, his TV ratings and the throngs showing up at his rallies. I wondered aloud if a president needed to be more humble than Trump was. “Nope,” he said, “they want success. They wanted humility in the past.” But now they just want someone who can win, which Trump — a big winner! — was of course uniquely suited to. “We’re going to have so many victories, you will be bored of winning,” Trump promised, not for the first or last time.

As Trump’s unlikely rise drew him closer to the White House, I kept looking for signs of humility. But for the most part, Trump’s approach remained the same as it was at the start. He preferred to be “unshackled” in his speeches and tweets; he boasted and offended freely and almost never apologized — the most basic expression of humility. He was sufficiently self-assured to “wing it” in debates and would even brag to audiences about how little he was preparing. He never bothered to “pivot” away from many of the intraparty feuds he engaged in during the Republican primary campaign.

But something happens to prospective presidents the moment they are elected, historians have observed. It’s difficult to describe, but the enormity hits fast and hard. “There’s something about the office,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said in The Times last month. The context of her remarks was whether it would be possible for even Trump to be transformed. Goodwin was discussing concern people in 2000 had about George W. Bush, who became president after a prolonged dispute over the vote count in Florida and a Supreme Court decision. Would people question Bush’s legitimacy? “Whether or not we agree with the decisions he made, he did fill the presidency,” Goodwin said of Bush. “I guess that’s what you have to hope if Trump wins.”

Trump’s election-night speech would give an initial signal. I noticed something immediately. He was exhausted but looked more stunned. He walked almost gingerly on stage. He spoke more softly than he had before. He barely smiled. (“Smile, Trump! You won!” the fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post.) Was this Trump “pivoting” to a more solemn bearing, a showman adapting to a new role? Perhaps, but this had the feel of something more organic. He even had something of that “What do we do now?” gaze that Robert Redford wore after his startling election-night win in “The Candidate.” It felt deeper than that, too. Trump was entering a wholly new and terrifying space. He had never commanded a more triumphant stage, yet he suddenly resembled a shrinking fish tossed into scary waters.

I watched Trump again Thursday, as President Obama hosted him at the White House. The president-elect was deferential and gracious as the media entered the Oval Office. He also conveyed the same hesitant vibe as he did on election night, which was oddly reassuring. “The fact that the president-elect looks a bit shocked and more somber today is the most heartening thing I’ve seen in days,” tweeted Tom Nichols, a professor at the United States Naval War College and a vocal Trump critic during the campaign.

At least Trump was human enough to be nervous, or humble enough to let it show all over his face. Yes, this was really happening, and the realization was sinking into Donald J. Trump like the initial drips of anesthesia: His life had changed utterly, and so had the world.

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