Trump Time Capsule #148: ‘Rosebud,’ and Hillary

That was then. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

With only 13 full days to go until the election, with many millions of early votes already cast, and with polling trends appearing to run against Donald Trump, it’s time to begin tapering off the Time Capsules™.

Pro or con, everyone knows as much about this candidate as anyone could need for making a choice. The accumulating public record about Trump’s thoughts and temperament, while the country was deciding whether to make him its president, is what I’ve been trying to keep up with in this series, starting five months (!) ago.

So with the proviso that I’m now looking for developments unusual even for Trump—not just another raft of misstatements, not “just” another charge of financial or personal misconduct, not just another illustration of the speared-fish wriggling of Republicans like Paul Ryan impaled upon their support for Trump—here is today’s video-heavy installment.


First, an unexpected side of Trump for those who are awash in his 2016-campaign persona. In my story about debates in last month’s issue, I mentioned how brutally simple Trump’s language has been in campaign speeches, interviews, and debates. Simple words, simple sentences, simple thoughts. One surprising exception, as I mentioned back in installment #10, was Trump’s impromptu and nuanced discussion of the tragedy of Harambe, the now-famous gorilla shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Here’s another, more extended example: Trump discussing the symbolism of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, in a clip by the famed Errol Morris (Fog of War etc) nearly a decade ago.

I’d seen this clip long ago, but was reminded of it today by Eric Redman. On re-viewing, I find it utterly absorbing. For any rich person to say these things about the movie, and its theme of the isolation of wealth, would be something. But from the Trump we now (think we) know, the clip is more like astonishing. The man we see here seems … introspective. Self-aware. You can start at time 2:00 to get a sample:

In my 2004 Atlantic piece about the presidential debates between incumbent George W. Bush and his challenger John Kerry, I discussed a puzzling aspect of Bush’s oratorical record. In his time on the national stage, from the beginning of his presidential campaign in 1999 to the end of his presidency, George W. Bush was famous for his mis-phrasing and malapropisms. (“Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” etc.)

But back in 1994, when he ran against the famously silver-tongued Ann Richards for governor of Texas, Bush was a very good speaker! He actually bested her in their debates (and then the election) and showed fluent command of details and phrasing.

What happened to Bush between 1994 and 1999? I don’t know. But whatever was underway—deliberate folksy-izing, unintended shift—seems also to have affected Trump in the decade since Errol Morris’s clip was shot.


The other famous video, which has bounced around for a while but attracted new attention this past week, is Trump’s heartfelt testimonial in 2008 about the virtues of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. One version is below—with the bonus of being followed by an infomercial for Trump Steaks! Other similar statements are here, here, and here.

Here is a related video:

What does this all mean? I don’t know. But the tone—the bearing, the gravitas, the timbre—of the earlier Trump in these samples is quite different from the man before us now. (On the other hand, the Trump of the “grab them by ..” Access Hollywood tape was of roughly this era too.)

Might this other Trump have had a better chance? I no longer can even pretend to guess, or judge.