Sarah Palin probably wasn't thinking of Donald Trump back in 2008, when she spouted that memorable line: "You can put lipstick on a pig; but it's still a pig." But nine years later, it's the most apt metaphor we have for some of the improvements we're seeing in President Trump's public performances.
Supporters and detractors (including several world leaders and foreign press) differ widely in how they assess Trump's performance on his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, Belgium, and Sicily. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), said: "The trip was executed to near perfection, and it appears the president has made great progress on the broad range of objectives." A Fox News spokeswoman said the trip "by all accounts was a home run."
Trump's speech on Islam before a collection of leaders of the Sunni Arab world was viewed with pleasant surprise for being nuanced and coherent. In a review of that speech in the liberal Vox News site online, the headline referred to it as "uncharacteristically inoffensive."
It seems that Trump's speechwriters have improved, and Trump himself has improved somewhat as a teleprompter reader. But has the man himself improved? Has he even grown in office, perhaps? Let's look at his unscripted performance among these world leaders at the two summit meetings, for NATO and the G-7 group.
Although he reveled in the lavish attention and flattery as the solo guest in a country (Saudi Arabia) that wanted, and got, favors from him, his behavior with other world leaders was -- as usual -- embarrassing for our country. A State Department official told The Daily Beast: "When it comes to diplomacy, President Trump is a drunk tourist, loud and tacky, shoving his way around the dance floor. He steps on others without realizing it." And the Atlantic called the trip "a catastrophe for U.S.-Europe relations."
Think about the widely covered handshake (an attempt to demonstrate dominance) over French President Emmanuel Macron; the shoving aside of the Montenegro prime minister to get to the front of a photo-op; the dressing-down of Germany with Chancellor Merkel sitting a few feet away; his refusal to state the US commitment of mutual defense to other NATO nations; and his refusal to say whether he would pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Those are measures of the aggressive, the anti-diplomatic, the bullying Trump. No improvement.
Spencer Boyer, a former national security officer and specialist on Europe, said of the meeting with European leaders: "The trip was unfortunately a failure by any objective standard. . . . It left European allies rattled . . . [by an emerging] image of the U.S. as an unreliable and unpredictable partner."
And here is a measure of his unimproved shallowness, despite the improvement in prepared speeches. Sarah Wildman of Vox news called it his "lack of gravity and deep reflection." It came when he visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. His planning team had already set a sour note by initially scheduling only 15 minutes for the visit; but, after criticism, it was extended to 30 minutes.
His prepared remarks (written for him) referred appropriately and somewhat movingly to: "millions of innocent, wonderful, and beautiful lives . . . extinguished as part of a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people." He called it "the most savage crime against God and his children . . . [and it is] our solemn duty to remember, to mourn, to grieve, and to honor every single life that was so cruelly and viciously taken."
So, maybe we'll give the speech writer a C+. Then came an unscripted moment: signing the guest book upon leaving the museum. If you've never been to a Holocaust Memorial, let me just say that, for any feeling person, it's nearly impossible not to be in tears at that point.
In contrast to the note of gravitas in the prepared remarks, as Wildman noted, Trump's guest book note sounded . . . well, like Trump: "blithe, almost chipper." It was inappropriate for this occasion; it would have been OK for a party given in his honor. But, unfortunately, Wildman is right. It is this, rather than the more somber speech, that will be remembered. What President Donald J. Trump wrote in the guest book at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem was this:
"It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends -- so amazing and will never forget."
I think that answers my question. No, the man himself has not improved.