Updated at 10:25 a.m. ET
Presidents have been asked all manner of questions about their behavior, but no one had ever asked whether the president should wear a mask. Until now.
In the midst of this hydra-headed, medical-economic-social crisis, the Trump administration's guidelines recommend that Americans wear a face covering in public spaces to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That makes it controversial when President Trump and Vice President Pence are out and about unmasked.
The point of the mask is mainly to protect others. The point of having the nation's leaders wear them is to encourage the nation to do the same.
So what if they don't? Are they then modeling something else?
On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could not have been more emphatic. The president, she said, should wear a mask in public (as she does) to set an example for the public.
But facewear remains out of fashion at the White House, apparently -- at least during public events.
When the president signed a proclamation for National Nurses Day on Wednesday, for example, none of the group gathered in the Oval Office wore a mask.
The White House has been regularly testing those who come into contact with the president and vice president. After a White House military aide tested positive for the coronavirus, Trump said on Thursday that testing at the White House would become daily rather than weekly.
In an interview on Fox on Friday, Trump added that valets who serve food and work around him will now be required to wear face masks.
But not for me
Trump first addressed the notion of a mask a month ago ("I don't think I'm going to be doing it") when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the practice. This week he left Washington to tour, of all things, a Honeywell mask-manufacturing site in Phoenix. Once there, he wore protective goggles over his eyes — but no mask.
This immediately reminded people of Vice President Pence's tour of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on April 28. Pence, who leads the White House task force on the virus, wore no mask at Mayo, even though all the officials and medical personnel clustered around him did. The widely republished photographs of him elbow-bumping with masked patients made this painfully clear.
Trump, however, was not apologetic after his visit to Honeywell this week, claiming he had put on a mask at the plant "backstage" before being told he did not have to wear one.
Amazingly enough, masks seem to be turning into one more emblem of our political polarization. Wear one and you are taking the virus and the social distancing prescription seriously. Refuse, and you signify something else that may be denial or even defiance.
Viewpoints also differ when it comes to national leaders' setting a good (or bad) example. Most would agree it's nice if the president models the most desirable social behavior. But when ideals of that sort meet reality, the results can be less than ideal.
Which fireside are you on?
Take recent history's best-known case of an earnest president modeling best behavior for the nation. That would be President Jimmy Carter. In 1977, after less than two weeks in the White House, he delivered a nationwide TV address telling Americans to get serious about using less energy (turn off lights, adjust the thermostat, drive less).
But what people saw and remembered was Carter delivering that speech wearing a cardigan sweater, sitting in front of a fireplace in the White House.
That last detail was widely interpreted as a reference to President Franklin Roosevelt's legendary "fireside chats," which were radio addresses from the White House. The chats began as soon as FDR took office in 1933 in the midst of a Depression-era banking panic. He took to the airwaves to announce a temporary, nationwide closing of the banks. But he called it a "bank holiday" and sounded quite confident that things would be fine.
When Carter brought back the fireside trope, some saw his effort as a successful and sincere demonstration. Others found his show of humility and downbeat demeanor less than presidential. If the energy crisis of the 1970s was indeed "the moral equivalent of war," as he called it, maybe the commander in chief should look a little more like a warrior.
Even trivial details of a president's behavior can become exercises in political messaging. Then-President Gerald Ford and his staff wanted to contrast his "regular guy" image with the "imperial presidency" of his predecessor, Richard Nixon.
So we learned that he toasted his own English muffins in the morning in a kitchen off the Oval Office and sometimes scooped up after his golden retriever on the White House lawn (even at times while still in his presidential bathrobe).
The idea of the president modeling a particular kind of behavior gets complicated, as all questions of presidential messaging do. Putting on a show for the sake of the public can easily slide into creating a false impression.
Another kind of mask
In fact, the controversies over presidents and masks in the past have been about concealment — particularly of physical challenges. The same FDR fondly remembered for his voice on the radio was rarely seen by the public in his wheelchair. The tanned and virile John F. Kennedy who urged the country to exercise and popularized the word "vigor" was suffering from several chronic conditions and undergoing extensive medical treatments.
These presidents felt they had to project health and strength to be elected and to be respected once in office. And something similar may be motivating Trump. A masked president is not a good look for any number of reasons, and a president trapped in the White House does not communicate confidence. Communicating confidence is essential to the persona of this president.
Beyond that, Trump has apparently decided that the way out of the current crisis is to be bold about reopening as quickly as possible in as many places as possible. He concedes there will be consequences and some will be "affected badly" but insists the economic damage cannot be allowed to continue.
So we can expect to see the president out and about around the country, projecting confidence in the nation's health and resilience. And that is what he is modeling by not wearing a mask.