Scal­ing the pres­i­den­tials

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Colum­nist

From this vista, the peaks al­ready carry a light frost. Pock­ets of snow rest in the ravines, and omi­nous high winds are forecast. In any sea­son, the Pres­i­den­tial Range is a fear­some place, in this sea­son es­pe­cially so.

The sum­mits are named for Wash­ing­ton, Adams, Jef­fer­son, Madi­son, even Pierce, and, most re­cently, Eisen­hower. Many of them are in­ac­ces­si­ble ex­cept through the most ar­du­ous of climbs. Some of them have sub­peaks, which pose spe­cial chal­lenges along rocky paths. Slip­pery ridges and dan­ger­ous ledges abound. But their great­est dis­tinc­tion, along with the most se­vere weather in the coun­try, is that they soar above the rest.

These peaks in the state that is host to the first pri­mary are well named. They are pres­i­den­tial, awe­some to be­hold, their sum­mits dif­fi­cult to at­tain. From ground level they look for­bid­ding, in­ac­ces­si­ble. But whether viewed in sun­shine or snow, whether gar­landed in green or draped in au­tumn col­ors, they above all fill us with awe.

That is what it is to be pres­i­den­tial, whether the word is em­ployed to de­scribe Mount Wash­ing­ton, which at 6,288 feet above sea level rises above all the others here, its shoul­ders breath­tak­ing in their width and strength, or the city of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., 570 miles to the south. There is beauty to the word -- pres­i­den­tial -its four syl­la­bles each a chime, but those dis­tinct sounds also are a toc­sin of dan­ger, for, as one of the hik­ing guides in these peaks warns, “It is your re­spon­si­bil­ity to un­der­stand these dan­gers, to make nec­es­sary prepa­ra­tions and to take the ap­pro­pri­ate pre­cau­tions.”

Now, a new fig­ure is pre­par­ing to take his place among the Pres­i­den­tials -- among the faces printed on the foot­long rulers that school­child­ren stow in their desks, if not among the sum­mits up here in a place that Ralph Waldo Emer­son con­sid­ered al­most sa­cred. “Here among the moun­tains the pin­ions of thought should be strong,” Emer­son wrote in a pe­riod of in­tro­spec­tion in 1836, “and one should see the er­rors of men from a calmer height of love and wis­dom.”

So, at this time, at the change of sea­son and at the change of pres­i­den­cies, it is nat­u­ral to give pause and to re­flect on what it means to be pres­i­den­tial, and, for those drawn to the hill­sides and whose thoughts are lured to the sum­mits, per­haps to dip into the most re­li­able guide to trekking these paths, a wellloved, much-re­spected ref­er­ence book that warns that, among the Pres­i­den­tials, “the weather is vi­cious enough to kill those who are fool­ish enough to chal­lenge the moun­tain at its worst.”

At an­other site scrap­ing the sky, a Man­hat­tan tower bear­ing his name, Don­ald Trump is build­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tion amid pleas from sup­port­ers and crit­ics alike to be pres­i­den­tial, an en­treaty Trump has an­swered in the past by say­ing, “I can be more pres­i­den­tial than any­body, if I want to be.” Separately he ex­plained: “More pres­i­den­tial than any­body other than the great Abe Lin­coln. He was very pres­i­den­tial.”

Trump is the first pres­i­dent with no prior elec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, which gives him a fresh­ness for the of­fice but also a steep learn­ing curve. “If you are not an ex­pe­ri­enced climber or a trained ath­lete,” coun­sels the au­thor­i­ta­tive guide to hik­ing the Pres­i­den­tials, “you will al­most cer­tainly en­joy the as­cent ... a great deal more if you build up to it with lesser climbs.”

It’s too late for that. But in­tel­li­gent guid­ance for this of­fice of duty and dan­ger rests in the ad­vice to hik­ers. “As­cents of the moun­tain in win­ter are some­times easy enough to de­ceive in­ex­pe­ri­enced hik­ers into false con­fi­dence,” it coun­sels, “but the worst con­di­tions in win­ter are in­con­ceiv­ably bru­tal and can ma­te­ri­al­ize with lit­tle warn­ing.” Gov­ern­ing, like hik­ing, is harder than it looks, and the path is steep.

David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the PostGazette (dshrib­man@postgazette.com, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.

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