The Big Three Seventy-Five Years Ago

This morning, a friend sent me a meme: a black-and-white photo of Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, seated in dignified poses, their expressions reserved and thoughtful. Different as their characters were, they all look like men who know their own minds and are capable of keeping their own counsel.

Below that image, three candid shots: Boris Johnson with his blond (is it really still that blond?) fright wig, mouth wide open in zany amazement, eyes popping; Donald Trump grimacing, his face distorted, finger-pointing like a grade-school bully; and Vladimir Putin, shirtless on horseback. “The ‘Big Three’ 75 years ago,” the headline reads, and “leaders of the same three countries today.”

What happened? The old-fashioned word “comportment” springs to mind. I realize that a posed photo is an advantage and the comparison is unfair—but is it, really? Can you imagine any of the first three looking like one of the Three Stooges or a paperback romance cover, even if they were drunk on a private island and caught by stealth paparazzi?

It is tempting to blame a changed style of political leadership, one that allows and even encourages displays of ego, petulance, temper, and machismo. Heads of at least some states are no longer expected to hold it together, curb their tongue, set aside their private feelings, censor their inner five-year-old. Are they playing to the press, because they know extreme behavior and provocative sound bites are rewarded? Or is the problem far bigger than politics—has our entire culture loosened too many stays at once, what with all the therapy and encouragement of self-expression?

You could say that all these caricatures, sillinesses, and strongmen at least let us know, relentlessly, exactly who they are, and that this is preferable to the enigma of, say, a Richard Nixon. You could also say that all the brazen hate speech at least lets us know how much bigotry and violence still exist. But it would be hard to argue that stripping the veneer of civility has improved us.

In The Wrong of Rudeness, philosopher Amy Olberding explores the early Confucian view that good manners were a way to cultivate our best natures. The West agreed, for quite a long time, not least because manners allowed the social contract to proceed. When people had manners, one could count on a reasonable and courteous disagreement. When leaders had to temper their most base instincts, they were at least not encouraging citizens to express theirs.

Remember when pundits kept waiting for Trump to “be presidential,” grabbing for the slightest hint of statesmanlike behavior? It usually only amounted to passing up an opportunity to savage someone. And we were pathetically grateful for this restraint, because we kept waiting for a real president to rise from the ashes of self-pleasuring and self-aggrandization. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop notes that whenever Trump “softens his tone and conduct, the media will notice and praise him for it. ‘It’s so easy, can you believe it?’ Trump said at a dinner in 2017, after seeing a positive turn in coverage. ‘All I had to do was be a little nice.’” These fleeting nicenesses are then praised as a “pivot.” And after last Thursday’s debate, Allsop continues, journalists at CNN, the Times, and ABC all noted that Trump was “disciplined,” that he “succeeded” insofar as he “spoke with an inside voice” and “thanked the moderator for letting him chime in and did not sound sarcastic while doing so.”

How low can we drop this bar?

Normally, I am charmed when someone in power reveals their humanity, loosens up a bit, cracks through the persona. I used to watch for those moments with Obama—who never lost his humanity, but regained ease and verbal fluency the minute he could stop delivering difficult, halting speeches to a nation he knew would largely resist what he was saying. Every once in a while, even at the toughest of times, his wry wit, sense of fun, or near helpless adoration of his wife and daughters snuck into a formal occasion. But in order for such revelations to be charming, they must be unexpected—a quick winks in the middle of well-prepared formality—and benign, neither endangering the speaker’s composure nor attacking the audience.

According to Merriam-Webster, “comportment” is neutral: It is simply “the way or manner in which one conducts oneself.” What we have lost has to be qualified as a certain kind of comportment, I suppose, admirable and inspiring. But even without adjectives, the word comes to us from the French, comportement, and that comes from comporter (to bear). There is a weight on these men’s shoulders, a mantle, and they must prove themselves able to carry it. For all our sakes.

An odd mix of traits defines good comportment: posture, for example—a straight spine, an ability to carry oneself easily, to be upright. A pleasing way of speaking, the voice modulated to be easy on others’ ears, not overloud or shrill. An ability to sit neatly and remain alert, not sprawl or slouch, and keep one’s limbs contained within one’s personal space—no manspreading or dozing off. These are more than physical traits; they signal courtesy, humility, self-discipline. Does that mean that as comportment disintegrates, so do our morals? I am going too far here: Stalin was no angel, just poised for a posed photo, and often the people most keenly aware of how they carry themselves have the worst intentions.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a nun insisting that the children wear clean plaid uniforms because they will study harder, I find myself thinking that we are all somehow a little better when we know there are ways we should behave. Not in robotic conformity, but by acknowledging the needs of those around us and the gravity of our responsibility to them.

Synonyms for “comportment” include “conduct” and “demeanor”—again, neutral words, yet by their very existence, they suggest that there are standards against which one’s behavior will be measured. Related words include “etiquette,” a word I have always loved because it means, loosely, the ticket on the outside of the package that tells you what is inside. Also “manners,” “form,” “mores,” “proprieties,” “amenity,” “civility,” “courtesy,” “decorum,” “politeness,” “poise.” Could any of those words be applied to Johnson, Trump, or Putin? Watching The Crown, I was exhausted by the need for restraint, the demands of diplomacy, the weight of a nation’s ideals, all of that resting on one woman’s head. Again and again I was tempted to brush protocol aside and urge Liz to cut loose. But there is something to be said for the discipline that reminds us we are playing a role larger than ourselves, and we are being seen by people we might offend if we do not take care. Setting policy aside, the very way Trump carries himself, aggressive and petulant, is more revealing than he will ever know: It suggests a man who is not fully bearing the weight of the office—and could not carry it off if he tried.


 Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.