But folks, I will say that, for those of you who still don’t understand, this is the problem with Donald Trump being president — his desecration of the office. All other problems — the cluelessness, the lying, the utter disregard for ethics, the open hostility to wisdom and experience, the stunning carelessness with policy — spring from that source. It’s the shameful American love affair with anti-intellectualism made flesh.
A dinner table at the White House should have the wit of the Algonquin Round Table, tempered by the nobility of purpose of the original King Arthur version.
Instead, look what we’ve got. This is the level the presidency has sunk to.
Evenings at the White House should look like this:
Yes, I realize this is likely to feel like déjà vu — this is about much the same point as this post yesterday.
But I was conversing via email with someone about that, and he shared this, so I’m going to share it with you.
Why return to the same topic? Because it’s an important one, making points that I think a lot of folks still haven’t absorbed.
Ever since Election Day — or maybe even since Trump captured the nomination — I’ve had this conversation over and over with some of you, and with others… Someone will say, “What are you so upset about? Why don’t you wait until Trump does something truly horrible, and react to that?” Which I answer with what seems to me excruciatingly obvious: He’s doing it already, every single day — with every crude lie he Tweets, with every embarrassing moment with a foreign leader, practically with every breath he takes. By being our president, he’s taking the greatest country on Earth and making it smaller, cruder, stupider, tackier — demeaning the treasure that our forebears bequeathed us.
It’s not something I can kick back and regard as normal. In fact, that would be inexcusable.
is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.
Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.
Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters….
I like that this one cites Moynihan. I always liked that guy. Not that I ever met him or anything.
In fact, I only saw him once in person. (Warning! Brad’s about to reminisce again!) It was that time in 1998 that I mentioned recently, when I went to Washington to check on Strom Thurmond and see if he was still functioning, and also visited Mike McCurry at the White House. Anyway, as long as I was there, McCurry arranged for me to attend a ceremony in the East Room marking the 50th anniversary of NATO.
That afforded me an extra opportunity to observe Strom, as it happened. After everyone else was seated, President Clinton walked in with Strom beside him holding onto his arm. Bill walked the nation’s senior senator to his front-row seat and got him situated before heading up to the podium to speak. (We Southern boys are brought up to act that way with our elders, and I thought better of Bill for it.)
Anyway, after the event was over and most of the media folks were headed back to the West Wing, I stepped out of the door that opens into the covered portico on the northern side of the House. I stood at the top of the steps for a moment deciding whether to continue to the press room or go back in and chat with folks, and watched as cars picked up the dignitaries, there at my feet.
I nodded to Strom as he came out, and watched him negotiate the steps pretty well. But there was a guy in front of him having all sorts of trouble hobbling down to his car.
It was Moynihan. He was only 69. Strom was 95 at the time.
It’s a shame Moynihan didn’t take better care of himself. If he had lived to be 100 like Strom, he’d still have 10 years to go now, and we’d have the benefit of his perspective as the nation so dramatically defines its self-respect downward…
I know Courson as a longtime source. We’re not close buddies or anything. I haven’t been on baseball road trips with him like Greg Gregory. All I can attest to is the impression I’ve formed dealing with him professionally over the course of decades.
And that impression is: John Courson is a gentleman, one who deeply values honor. Not only that, but he is a man to whom being a gentleman, in an old-school sense, is extremely important. He’d no more throw it away than he would tear down that Marine Corps banner he flies in front of his house and trample on it. He certainly wouldn’t do it in an underhanded scheme to obtain filthy lucre.
That’s just something I’m not able to imagine.
So there has to be some other explanation.
I just don’t know what that would be.
It seems unlikely that prosecutor David Pascoe would have stepped out on this without having what he believes to be solid evidence. After all this time, and all this expectation that’s been built up, and all the controversy infused with the ugly taint of partisanship, he’d be crazy to go after Courson unless he was sure he had him.
Even if you accept the notion — which I don’t — that this is all partisan politics, a desperate attempt by a Democrat to weaken the supremely dominant Republicans, Pascoe would be nuts to make a play like this without an ace in his hand. (And if it were a matter of a Democrat going after Republicans, why target Courson, who enjoys so much Democratic support?)
What might that ace be? One assumes he has, or would want to have, documents showing a money trail. And if that’s what he has, what explanation will Courson have to counter that?
In any case, I’m just not able to believe he’s guilty.
Yeah, it’s true: One can be fooled about someone. I’ll never forget my uncle’s reaction to Lost Trust. When the feds charged John I. Rogers, my uncle said no way. They’ve got the wrong man. No one in Bennettsville could believe that Rogers would do anything underhanded. If it had been the local senator, Jack Lindsey, no one would have raised an eyebrow. But John I. Rogers? No.
There’s just this enormous cognitive gulf, and we’ve apparently made little progress in bridging it.
Most of us who would never, ever have dreamed of even joking about voting for Donald Trump see his daily insanities, and think, All those people who voted for him have to be regretting it all now.
But the truly shocking thing is, apparently they’re not. Apparently, these folks and their philosophical forebears had been waiting for a president just like this for the last 228 years. Ever since the election of 1788, we’ve seen a progression of presidents who were serious, well-informed individuals who approached the duties of the office with respectful decorum and dignity and hewed mainly to more or less intelligent policies that served the national interest. And most of us thought that was a good thing, and disapproved of those who in one way or another strayed from the norm, such as James Buchanan and Andrew Jackson.
But apparently, these folks didn’t want qualifications or gravitas or depth of understanding or honesty or any of those other qualities in a president at all. They wanted — a Reality TV star.
(Remember that exchange in “Ghostbusters” when Sigourney Weaver says “You know, you don’t act like a scientist,” then Bill Murray, taking it as a compliment, says, “They’re usually pretty stiff,” and Sigourney slam-dunks that by saying, “You’re more like a game show host?” Well, this is kind of like that, only without Murray’s goofball appeal as a protagonist.)
So they’re happy with what they got — if The Post has it right, but remember, the media are the Enemies of the People — and they can’t imagine why the rest of us would be so critical of their guy. They assume that it’s about being sore losers or big babies, or having nasty ulterior motives or something. As one supporter puts it:
“There’s such hatred for the man,” she said. “I just don’t get it.”
And that’s a huge problem, the not getting it. If none of the chaos we’ve seen out of the White House since Jan. 20 has clued these folks in yet, if this in fact is what they want, then there’s little hope of Republicans in Congress seeing the kind of movement in polls that would embolden them to initiate proceedings to get rid of this guy. (And yeah, some of y’all will say I’m getting ahead of myself even thinking that way, but hey, I see a problem of this magnitude and I immediately start looking for the solution, whether everybody else is ready for it or not.)
It would be poignant, if it weren’t so awful for the country. As the Post says of these folks:
Many of President Trump’s most dedicated supporters — the sort who waited for hours in the Florida sun this weekend for his first post-inauguration campaign rally — say their lives changed on election night. Suddenly they felt like their views were actually respected and in the majority.
But less than one month into Trump’s term, many of his supporters say they once again feel under attack — perhaps even more so than before….
It’s almost enough to make me feel bad for them. But not quite, because, you know, they’re getting their way. And it looks like they will continue to do so for quite some time….
Kudos to The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, who is continuing to keep the heat on Donald J. Trump, even as some others on the paper’s editorial page — who also know better — seem to have lost the will to do so.
His piece today, headlined “The Wrong Kind of Crazy,” plays off of the Nixonian global strategy — the “madman theory” — of keeping adversaries in the dark about what you might do in a crisis, which theoretically causes them to tread lightly. In the hands of grounded figures such as Nixon and Kissinger, the approach made some sense. But that was in the case of rational actors — the “madman” part was that you wanted your adversaries to want to act in ways that would keep you rational.
It doesn’t work so well when your president is an ignoramus who basically doesn’t do rational, or at least doesn’t do it any more often than a stopped clock states the right time.
Which brings us to the present day, of course, since this is the first time in our history that we’ve been in such a situation.
Stephens says Trump has done one thing so far that — against a background of Nixonian stability and pragmatism — could have fit in the “good crazy” category: throwing China off-balance with that phone call with the Taiwanese president. As he wrote, If Beijing wants to use ambiguous means to dominate the South China Sea, why shouldn’t Washington hit back with ambiguous devices of its own?”
Unfortunately, practically all of Trump’s brand of nuttiness is “the wrong kind of crazy: capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb:”
So much was evident with the president’s refugee ban on Saturday. And with Steve Bannon’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s demotion from it. And with the announcement Wednesday that Mexico would pay for the wall. And with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on Monday and the aggressively protectionist themes of his inaugural. And with his performance at CIA headquarters. And with his incontinent fixations on crowd size and alleged voter fraud….
That’s quite a list, isn’t it, describing the insane things done by an administration that’s only 11 days old? (And that’s a nice phrase: “incontinent fixations.”)
Just take one item: Replacing the head of the Joint Chiefs with Breitbart’s Bannon on the National Security Council would by itself be enough for me, were I a member to Congress, to start looking into impeachment procedures. That’s just beyond gross.
Anyway, I appreciate that Stephens isn’t going all wobbly…
The theory is, there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy.
Trump preening in front of Langley’s Holy of Holies./Still from CBS video.
Before I even knew what he said Saturday, I cringed at the image: Donald Trump… who has likened our intelligence community to Nazi Germany for its sin of having told the truth about Russia injecting itself into our election on his behalf… standing in front of the wall at Langley that honors CIA officers killed in the line of duty.
That, alone, was grotesque. But hey, maybe that’s not Trump’s fault. Maybe the CIA people set it up for him to stand there. Move on…
Then I learned what he said while he was there. He was there to mend fences — and good for him wanting to do that, and making it a priority. But he dishonored those assembled and even more those on the wall by spending a huge portion of his time moaning about the awful media and how they lie all the time.
What would be the pettiest “lie” for him to focus on? Yep, he claimed that the turnout for his inauguration was greater than it was, and lambasted the media for reporting it accurately.
He went on and on about it. To some who were there, it seemed he spent most of his time talking about his grievance with the media rather than mending fences with the CIA. That’s not quite the case. Here’s a transcript of his rambling, hard-to-follow monologue (no, President Trump will not be any more coherent than the candidate was). I went through and tried, as well as I could, to separate the “CIA” parts from the “me, me, ME!” parts. My rough division came up with 1,450 words in the CIA sections, and 937 words that were purely moaning about himself and the media.
Still, pretty bad. And worse if you consider that he finds it hard to talk about the CIA without self-aggrandizement showing up in the same sentence. An example:
You know, the military and the law enforcement, generally speaking, but all of it — but the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. (Laughter.) But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. (Applause.) We’re all on the same wavelength, right? He knows. It took Brian about 30 seconds to figure that one out, right, because we know we’re on the same wavelength.
But we’re going to do great things….
Maybe I shouldn’t have included those 114 words in the “CIA” file, since it’s so “me, me, me.” But hey, that’s how this guy reaches out to people. The basic form is, Wow, I am so great and awesome, and I know you appreciate that, so you’re great, too. I include you in my awesomeness.
So it’s hard to know what to put in the “focusing on others” category, and what is purely “focusing on me.”
A side note about the part about him and the media: He mentioned one actual error that one reporter had committed (a TIME reporter failed to see the bust of MLK in the Oval Office, and reported it was missing) — and then corrected right away as soon as he knew it was wrong. Which is what reporters do, immediately, when they report things that aren’t right. Trump, of course, uses the incident to suggest that this is but one example of the dishonesty of the media. (At least, that seems to be what he’s saying. As usual, it’s a bit hard to parse. At one point, he’s excusing the mistake; at another, he’s attaching universal significance to it.)
Note that Trump couldn’t even tell this anecdote without an extensive, childishly pathetic digression about how awesome he is: “So a reporter for Time magazine — and I have been on there cover, like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time Magazine. Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right? (Laughter.) I’ve been on it for 15 times this year. I don’t think that’s a record, Mike, that can ever be broken. Do you agree with that? What do you think?” Just, wow.
And how were the media being dishonest? By truly reporting a simple fact: The crowd that turned out for Trump’s inauguration was smaller than those for Obama in 2009 and 2013. This is obviously, clearly true, whether you go by photographs or Metro ridership. Here’s the 2009 crowd, and here’s the 2017 crowd. And it’s no big deal. Only the most fragile and insecure of men would be bothered by such a fact being reported. Hey, it was raining — so who cares, right?
Trump cares. Trump cares bigly. And therefore, so do his people.
That same day, we were treated to what may have been the most extraordinary White House press briefing in history — and hey, this was just the press secretary’s first outing! He marked the occasion by fuming at the reporters that lies were truth and truth was lies. His lies were patently obvious ones, easily refuted. And after spouting these lies, he stormed off without taking questions, which would have been remarkable in itself.
Already, this guy has made us nostalgic for the honesty, affability and quiet reason of Ron Ziegler.
OK, so a new administration’s rookie press secretary gets up and makes a jackass of himself in his first at bat. So you acknowledge it and move on, right? You hope to do better in the next game.
Nope. Not this team. The media’s refusal to embrace this lie about how many people attended the inauguration is, in their minds, the first crisis of the new administration, and calls for lashing out and circling the wagons.
Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.
And she was serious about that! Watch the video below.
OK, so now you have it: This new administration that was going to “Make America Great Again” spent its first weekend in power engaging in a full-court press insisting that a lie was true. Insisting adamantly, because this utterly trivial matter is of the highest importance to this crowd, because anything bearing on his fragile ego is of the highest importance to the new president!
And that the new president kicked off this farce while standing in front of a monument to patriots who died in the darkness, without credit or acclaim, transforms what might otherwise be low comedy into obscenity.
CAVEAT: When I wrote this post I had missed something important in the governor’s speech, something that had come during the part I missed. It has bearing on the points I make in the post, and here it is.
I had a Community Relations Council meeting last night, so I only heard the very last part of Nikki Haley’s last State of the State on the radio driving home.
It sounded fine, as fond farewells go. I was a little disappointed by one thing. I heard her talking in a roundabout, indirect way about getting the Confederate flag down:
But above all, I will remember how the good people of South Carolina responded to those tragedies, with love and generosity and compassion, and what that has meant for our state.
I spoke earlier of my dear desire to see the image of South Carolina changed for the better. Standing here tonight, I can say with every confidence that it has happened, that that desire has been fulfilled.
But not because of me. The people of South Carolina accomplished the highest aspiration I had for our state all on their own.
They did it by showing the entire world what love and acceptance looks like. They did it by displaying for all to see the power of faith, of kindness, and of forgiveness. They did it by stepping up to every challenge, through every tragedy, every time.
But I wish she’d spoken about it more directly. When I got a copy of her speech later, I found that it only contained the word “flag” once, and that was in reference to the Clemson flag she and her daughter had hoisted over the State House earlier this week. (NOTE: This counts officially as a sports reference, and fulfills the weekly quota! So if y’all want to talk about that football game the other night, here’s a place for you to do it.)
Which disappointed me. Why? Because I think getting that other flag down was her defining moment, the one when she became the leader of South Carolina, and led us to where our lawmakers had refused for too long to go.
Did you see Obama’s farewell speech the other night? He mentioned getting bin Laden, didn’t he? Of course he did. That’s when he made his bones as commander-in-chief. Well, the flag was when Nikki made hers, only as leader of a mature, rational state where people may not forget, but they forgive, and care about each other.
Yeah, I get that she wanted her speech to be sweetness and light, and didn’t want to say anything that stirred ill feeling — and there are those who resent taking down the flag, although they’ve mostly been fairly quiet. And it seems safe to assume there’s a bit of a correlation between those folks and the set that voted for her soon-to-be boss.
But that was her proudest moment. I think it’s easy for people to downplay her role, but I’m telling you, I’ve known too many governors who didn’t want to touch that flag, or even talk about it. And I’ve known others who started to do something, but backed away, or accepted a “compromise” that settled nothing — because they saw that as the best they could get out of our Legislature. And maybe they were right, at the time.
But the thing that Nikki did was recognize the moment when it came, and seize it without hesitation. (That’s a huge part of leadership — recognizing when people are ready to be led. One of the secrets of Lincoln’s extraordinary achievements was his uncanny ability to see exactly when he could lead the country to do things it had always refused to do before.)
It was a moment in which the whole state was in shock and morning. And there were those who protested that this wasn’t the time to act, before the dead had even been buried. But sometimes that exactly when one must act, because later would be much too late.
When she stood up and said, essentially, Let’s not let this summer pass without getting that flag down for good — no fooling around, no compromises, that made all the difference. It made what had been impossible possible, and made it happen.
So if she’d wanted to speak to that directly, I’d have applauded. Because I’m proud of her for that.
She didn’t have to brag or anything. She could have stuck to her theme of “I didn’t do it; y’all did.” And that’s true, in the sense that our state was ready to be led there. But without someone strenuously pushing it through the Legislature, it wouldn’t have happened.
I’ll close with that video my son did after the first anti-flag rally after the shootings, the one I did the voiceover on. It testifies to a mood sweeping through our state. But I still said, it took what Nikki did to translate that into action…
As if this were not a bad enough time for America, the son of an evangelist I’ve always respected seems to believe the Almighty is out to get us:
Franklin Graham: It wasn’t Russians who intervened in election, ‘it was God’
Evangelist Franklin Graham doesn’t believe it was the Russians who intervened in this year’s controversial presidential election.
It was God, he declared Saturday in Mobile, Ala., during President-elect Donald Trump’s final public rally before the Electoral College vote Monday.
“Since the election there’s been a lot of discussion as to how Donald Trump won the election,” AL.com reported Graham as saying. “I believe it was God. God showed up. He answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people across this land that have been praying for this country.”…
Let’s unpack this a bit. A large number of evangelicals were prepared to vote for whoever opposed Hillary Clinton because like me, they oppose abortion. And I can almost, but not quite, understand their holding their noses and choosing Trump as the one person in position to stop a woman they regarded for whatever reasons as the Devil herself. (Just as I was willing to vote for her as the only person in position to stop Trump.)
But note that I said “almost, but not quite.” That’s because the only possible justification would be that they were single-issue voters, which I find it hard to imagine being. And even if I were, on the life-and-death issue of abortion, I would find it very difficult to see Donald Trump as an ally, since his commitment to the pro-life position is so transparently a stance of convenience. He obviously has practically no understanding of the issue, and could drop the position as conveniently as he dropped his previous one — something we’ve seen him do time and time again. If you don’t like a position taken by this guy, wait a few minutes.
So what is there that a man of God, or one who sees himself as a man of God, would see as worth celebrating here?
It just floors me.
But let’s look at what unites us. I can join him in this prayer at least:
If only George Smiley were available to brief him. And if only he’d listen…
Just to start off the week, which is worse?
Trump deciding he doesn’t need the daily intelligence briefing — even though, you know, there’s never been a president-elect in our history more painfully in need of one. I have to admit I cringed right after the election when it was reported he would start getting these — the very idea of the least discreet man in America being briefed on the nation’s secrets — but Trump not getting such briefings is actually much more disturbing. I mean, if he gets enough of them, maybe, just maybe, he’d start to get a clue. And perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to get them. Having a clue would cramp his style.
My immediate reaction, of course, is that absurdity No. 2 is the worse one, because what could be more dangerous than a president who says “No, they didn’t” to evidence that Russia was trying to do such a thing to this country, striking at the very core of our democracy? And of course, we know why he dismisses it: It suggests he is less awesome than he thinks he is, and that he needed help to win. Which makes his stubborn refusal to accept facts even more alarming — because what has concerned us most about Trump, if not his penchant for placing the stroking of his own fragile, unstable ego ahead of every other consideration?
If only someone could tell him the bad news in a good way — pointing out that no one is saying the Russians won the election for him (at least I haven’t heard that yet); we’re just saying that Putin may have committed an extraordinarily hostile act against this country, just by trying. Of course, even then, we’d run up against a key goal of the incoming Trump administration, which is to favor Russia — something of which we got another reminder via the nomination of the ExxonMobil guy for secretary of state. And once again, Trump is utterly uninterested in, and hostile to, any information that might contradict what he wants to believe. (He’s like his supporters in that regard, the ones who choose their own alternative-reality “news” sources.)
(A digression: On the radio this morning, someone was wondering why, if you want to cozy up to one superpower wannabe and tick off another, why choose moribund Russia to be your pal instead of the dynamic, growing China? Good question.)
But the more I think about it, the more I think absurdity No. 1 may be the bigger problem.
If I were president, or president-elect, I would consider the intelligence briefing the most important part of my day, most days. My temptation would be to let it take up more of my day, rather than less. On the days that the briefing was boring — just same-old, same-old — I would count my blessings. The worst briefings would tend to be the extremely interesting ones.
Because I have a better grasp of international affairs than Trump does (here we go — comments are on the way telling me he’s smarter than I am because he has more money — but this is one thing where I’m pretty confident, because a guy doesn’t need to know much about foreign policy to know more than Trump), I know how much I don’t know, and I would want to do everything I could to know more.
And as I said, our country has never had an incoming leader who needed these briefings more than this guy. If he had these steady, daily tutorials, he may even begin to develop something we might loosely term perspective.
But he doesn’t want that. He thinks he knows everything, when he actually knows less than Jon Snow — if he knew nothing, he’d be better off than he is “knowing” all the things he “knows” that aren’t true.
Bottom line — while within days I fear we’ll hear something worse and this will be toppled from it’s place of honor, these developments over the weekend I think are the most disturbing signs we’ve seen since the election of just how bad this is going to be…
But everyone knew or should have known that the wounds from an election that was as raw and divisive and negative as campaign 2016 would not be quickly healed…
No, no, NO!
The problem is not that the election was “divisive,” or even “negative.” Those factors have been givens in American politics in recent decades. We’ve had negative campaigns across the country since the early 1980s, when the old guideline that a candidate would damage himself if he “went negative” died and was buried. Lee Atwater rose during those days, but the rule was being broken by others, such as Robin Beard, who used creative, negative ads against Jim Sasser in the 1982 Senate race in Tennessee (where I was at the time), gaining national attention but failing to win the election (which briefly seemed to confirm the old commandment against negativity).
As for divisive — well, it’s been pretty awful ever since the election of 1992, when bumper stickers that said “Don’t Blame Me — I Voted Republican” appeared on cars even before Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993. Since then, the parties have not been satisfied merely to disagree, but have increasingly regarded leaders of the opposite party to be illegitimate and utterly beyond the pale.
So it is that the terms “divisive” and “negative” say nothing about the recent election; they do not in any way distinguish the presidential election of 2016 from any contest that preceded it.
And yet we all know that this election was different from every one that preceded it in American history, right? So how do we describe that difference?
THIS is the difference, folks.
Well, it’s really not all that hard — although describing the underlying causes is more difficult. The difference is Donald Trump.
This was an election between a relatively normal, reasonably qualified candidate, and a grotesquely unfit one — a crude, rude, petty, childish, ignorant, unstable man who had done nothing in his life that in any way prepared him for the job.
You can complicate it if you wish. Feminists want to characterize Hillary Clinton as a groundbreaking candidate of historic proportions — which is silly. She was as conventional as can be: As a former senator and secretary of state, you don’t even have to mention her time as first lady to describe her qualifications. She was Establishment; she was a centrist (center-left if you prefer); she was someone completely at home in the consensus about the role of the United States in the world that has prevailed since Harry Truman. The main thing is, she was qualified.
Yes, she was the second most-hated major party nominee (second to the man who beat her) in the history of keeping track of such things, which is an important reason she lost. Some people who should have known better hated her so much that they were able to rationalize voting for the astonishingly unfit Trump in order to stop her, so that was definitely a factor. But aside from that, she was a normal candidate, from the usual mold, a person who people who knew what they were about — such as Republican foreign-policy experts — were comfortable voting for, knowing the nation would be in reasonably safe hands.
She was business-as-usual (which also helped sink her, as we know), while Trump was a complete departure from anything that had ever before risen its ugly, bizarrely-coiffed head to this level in American politics. It wasn’t just a matter of resume. This man got up very early every morning to start making statements — by Twitter before others rose, out loud later in the day — that absolutely screamed of his unfitness. A rational employer would not hire someone that unstable to do anything, much less to become the most powerful man in the world.
I need not provide a list of his outrages, right? You all remember the election we just went through, right?
TRUMP is what distinguishes this election from all others. TRUMP is what people are trying to get over — which we can’t, of course, because he’s now with us for the next four years. I ran into a former Republican lawmaker yesterday — a member of the revolutionary class of 1994, the original Angry White Male revolt — who expressed his utter bewilderment and sense of unreality that has been with him daily since the election. To him, as to me, the fact that Trump won the election can’t possibly BE a fact. Nothing in our lives prior to this prepared us for such a bizarre eventuality.
Yes, there are complicating factors — the populist impulse that has swept the West recently, which sometimes seemed would prevent Hillary Clinton from winning her own party’s nomination, despite her socialist opponent’s clear unsuitability and the fact that it was understood in her party that it was Her Turn. The roots of that are difficult to plumb. As is the fact that the GOP was bound and determined to reject all qualified candidates and nominate someone completely unsuitable — if not Trump, it would have been Ted Cruz, whom tout le monde despised. Both factors can be attributed to the populist obsession, but contain important differences.
So yes, there was a force abroad in the land (and in the lands of our chief allies) that was determined to sweep aside qualifications, good sense and known quantities in favor of the outlandish. And that helped produce Trump.
But still, particularly if you look directly at what happened on Nov. 8, the difference is Trump himself.
And that MUST be faced by anyone attempting to explain what has happened.
Ever since he started closing in on the nomination, I’ve been begging everyone in the commentariat and beyond to resist the lazy temptation to normalize Trump, to write or speak as though this were just another quadrennial contest between Democrat and Republican, to be spoken of in the usual terms. I was hardly alone. Plenty of others wrote in similar terms about the danger of pretending this election was in any way like any other.
And now, we still have that battle to fight, as veteran (and novice) scribes seek to describe the transition to a (shudder) Trump administration in the usual terms, even though some have admirably noted the stark difference. (I particularly appreciated the Post piece yesterday accurately explaining the similarities between this unique transition and Reality TV. — which is another new thing, folks, as we slouch toward Idiocracy.)
It’s a battle that must be fought every day, until — four years from now, or eight, or however many years it takes (assuming our nation even can recover from this fall, which is in doubt) — a normal, qualified person is elected president.
Trump voters wanted an outsider, but I doubt that they, or I, or anyone yet fully grasps just how out-of-the-loop this guy is.
I think I have a pretty good idea, based on the last year and a half. I’ve long known enough to see that — if you see the same things — you’d have to be stark, raving mad to want to put this guy anywhere near the Oval Office. But look what’s happened.
So, each day will bring us face-to-face with yet another thing that demonstrate that Donald Trump has never spent a moment of his garish life thinking about things that are second nature to people who — regardless of party or philosophy — possess the most basic qualifications to be president.
Sometimes it’s something small — but telling — such as this:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
Now here’s a place where my own gut feelings are the same as those of our president-elect. The idea of someone showing such hatred and contempt toward the flag that our bravest Americans have given their lives to defend, and to raise over such places as, say, Iwo Jima — a flag that symbolizes the noble ideas upon which our nation was founded — is profoundly offensive, even obscene. I have utter contempt for anyone who would even consider such a thing.
But I wouldn’t use the power of the state to punish someone for it, certainly not to the extent of loss of citizenship, or a year of imprisonment. You might have me going for a moment on something such as writing the protester a ticket, but ultimately I’d even have to reject that. Why? Because of those very ideas that the flag stands for. If burning the flag causes a person to be burned or causes some other harm, then you have a crime. But if the expression itself is punishable, then it doesn’t matter whether the flag is burned because it doesn’t stand for anything.
(This is related to my opposition to “hate crimes,” one of the few areas where I agree with libertarians. Punish the crime — the assault, the murder, the arson, whatever the criminal did — not the political ideas behind it, however offensive.)
People who have their being in the realm of political expression have usually thought this through. And true, even people who have thought about it may disagree with my conclusion, wrong as they may be. Still others cynically manipulate the feelings of millions of well-meaning voters who haven’t thought the issue through themselves.
But I don’t think that’s the case with Trump. I think he’s just never really wrestled with this or thousands of other questions that bear upon civic life, so he goes with his gut, which as I admitted above is much the same as my own on this question. He engages it on the level of the loudmouth at the end of the bar: I’ll tell ya ONE damn’ thing…
In a time not at all long ago — remember, Twitter didn’t exist before 2006 — we wouldn’t know this as readily as we do now. Sure, a political leader might go rogue during a speech, or get tripped up on an unexpected question during a press conference. But normally, the smart people surrounding a president would take something the president wanted to say and massage and process and shape it before handing it to a press secretary to drop into the daily briefing.
Now, the president-elect — or Joe Blow down the street — can have a gut feeling and without even fully processing the thought himself, immediately share it with the entire planet. As this president-elect does, often.
That’s a separate problem, of course, from the basic cluelessness of this president-elect. Not only does he not know a lot that he should, he has the impulse and the means to share that lack of knowledge and reflection with the world, instantly.
Quite a few people in public life haven’t figured out social media. They don’t understand something that editors know from long experience — that you have to be very careful about what you publish. (And yes, posting a random thought on Twitter does constitute publication.) Our governor, soon to be our U.N. ambassador, had a terrible time learning that, although to her credit she hasn’t done anything notably foolish on Facebook in a while.
For the second time in two weekends, President-elect Donald Trump stirred controversy, bigly, using only his thumbs.
With a trio of tweets Sunday alleging millions of fraudulent votes and “serious” fraud in three states, Trump effectively hijacked the news cycle for the next 24 hours with baseless conspiracy theories. A week prior, it was Trump’s tweets demanding an apology from the cast of “Hamilton” for disrespecting Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience the previous night.
It can all feel pretty small and sideshow-y at times. Some have a prescription: The media should resist the urge to cover Trump’s tweets as big news. Others even say we should ignore them altogether….
But we can’t. In the months and years to some — assuming no one gets control of him, and I doubt anyone will — we must treat them as seriously as if the president strode into the White House Press Room and made a formal announcement.
This is what we’ve come to. Our window into the mind of the most powerful man in the world will to a great extent be these spasmodic eruptions onto a tiny keyboard.
On Reports President-elect Trump Will Not Pursue Clinton Investigation:
“Well so much for ‘Locking Her Up’ I guess. The bottom line is that I think the Clinton Foundation, the whole mess, should be looked at with an independent view, not a political agenda. I never believed Obama’s Justice Department would seriously look at what she may have done. I can understand wanting to put the election behind us and heal the nation, but I do hope all the things President-elect Trump said about how crooked she was – well, we just don’t let it go without some serious effort to see if the law was truly violated. I think that would be a mistake.”
Possibly the most egregious moment in the campaign was when Trump threatened — in a nationally televised, live debate — to turn the United States into a banana republic by locking up his political opposition.
Graham is a big advocate for the rule of law, and an intelligent politician, and I can’t believe that he doesn’t see it would be impossible for Trump to pursue a prosecution against Hillary Clinton after having said what he said and have that be seen as anything other than abuse of power.
He certainly understands that any prosecutorial moves on her would be a judgment call — it’s not like she clearly and with malice aforethought went out a committed a major crime, something that couldn’t be overlooked no matter the political and constitutional ramifications.
Graham isn’t one of these guys with a 20-plus-year record of Clinton Derangement Syndrome. He got along pretty well with her when she served in the Senate, so it’s out of character for him to express reluctance to let go of this bone.
All of that adds up to it being weird for him to go “Are you sure you want to do that?” when Trump, of all people, is willing to let it go — possibly at the price of loss of favor among a lot of the folks who voted for him.
Oh, and as long as I’ve got you, I should share the other topic he addressed — Jeff Sessions. Here’s a quote, and it’s all on the video below, two-and-a-half minutes in:
On the Nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General:
“I’ve known Jeff for twenty years. I think he’s a principled conservative. I’ll have some questions for him before the Judiciary Committee. These attacks on his personal character, about him being some kind of closet racist or what he may have said thirty or forty years ago is complete garbage. Jeff Sessions is one of the finest people I have ever known. I don’t think there is a hateful bone in his body. We have some policy differences so I’ll be glad to challenge Jeff where we disagree, but support him in terms of him being a good, decent man. And to my Democratic colleagues, you better watch what you do here.”
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham on the 2016 Presidential Election
November 9, 2016
“Secretary Clinton’s concession speech, like President-elect Donald Trump’s last night, was appropriate in tone and substance.
“She should be congratulated on doing her part to bring about healing of our nation and setting the right tone in terms of working with President-elect Trump. All Americans should follow her counsel and try to work with our next President. I intend to do so. President-elect Trump will need all the help he can get given the many challenges we face as a nation.
“Secretary Clinton ran a hard fought campaign and I genuinely wish her well.”
“Secretary Clinton ran a hard fought campaign and I genuinely wish her well.” Yeah, uh-huh, OK. So… Why didn’t you help her?
I’ve long had a lot of respect for Sen. Graham, and for John McCain, as readers of this blog will know. I’ve endorsed them, stuck up for them — a lot.
But I’m kind of ticked at both of them right now.
They’re part of that large group of Republicans Who Knew Better — and failed to lead in this election.
These are guys who have exhibited a lot of courage in the past, but that was not in evidence this year. They both failed to do the one thing that might have helped — stand up and declare that they were voting for Hillary Clinton, which was the only way to stop Trump (who they knew was a nightmare), and urge others to do the same.
I know why they didn’t — they wanted to keep getting elected, and a Republican most likely can’t do that after saying he’ll vote for someone the party despises so much.
But as much as I want both of them in the Senate, stopping Trump was more important. I suppose it’s human nature — human weakness — that they didn’t see it that way.
But if anybody could have done it, it would have been them. Anyone who paid attention could see that they both worked well with her when she was in the Senate. There was mutual respect there. Their willingness to step over the partisan boundary to try to get things done together made me feel better about all three of them.
They really should have stood up and told the truth, instead of playing along with the fantasy on the right that she was just as bad as Trump, if not worse.
At least they had an excuse, though. What’s the excuse of the two President Bushes? Their political careers are over. Both probably DID vote for Hillary. They should have come out and said so. What stopped them? A desire to protect Jeb’s political future? WHAT political future?
I suspect that all of them thought she was going to win anyway, and didn’t need them to step up.
Today, I read the newspapers with which I start my days (The State, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal) with far less interest, less avidity, than usual.
That’s because no one had anything to say, or to report, that offered any way forward out of the extreme darkness into which Tuesday’s result has plunged this nation.
A large part of my reading every day is opinion, which I suppose is natural enough given my background, but it’s also because I feel that I get more out of journalism that makes an argument — whether it’s one with which I agree or disagree. I learn better when my mind is challenged.
Anyway, none of the opinion or analysis pieces I read today were helpful. There were all these smart, well-meaning people trying to make sense of what’s happened and offer a way forward, and they pretty much all fell flat. Because really, at this moment there’s nothing to be done, and we’re all braced, waiting for the awfulness that is to come.
The only thing that has spoken to me at all today is this piece published yesterday in The New Yorker, because it fairly well sets out the awfulness of what has happened. So at least this resonates; at least it has a ring of truth. Oh, bits of it are off-key from my perspective: Being a liberal New Yorker, this writer is far more concerned than I about what he is pleased to call “an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court.”
But other parts seemed to fit quite well. Excerpts:
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety….
All along, Trump seemed like a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right. That he has prevailed, that he has won this election, is a crushing blow to the spirit; it is an event that will likely cast the country into a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty that we cannot yet imagine. That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.
In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”…
That’s probably as far as I can go without violating Fair Use; perhaps I’ve gone too far already.
But the parts I quote were spot on. And I think before the vast numbers of people who did all they could to prevent what has happened can move forward, they need to come completely to grips with just how bad the situation is. Plumb the depths, you might say.
One other phrase from the piece that wasn’t included in the excerpts above: “Trump is vulgarity unbounded…”
In that vein… I haven’t spoken to any of my children or grandchildren yet about what has happened to their country. I’m not sure what to say when I do. I want it to be something that helps, but I don’t know what that will be. So I’ll close with the Clinton ad that more than any other hit right to the heart of why it was utterly unthinkable for this man to become president of the United States:
A lot of them may have RUN from him, but too few stood up to be counted.
Some of you have expressed the opinion that I’ve just gone overboard in describing the unique threat to our country that is Donald Trump.
I entirely disagree. The one thing that, for me, would make a Trump victory even worse would be if I were kicking myself tomorrow, thinking, If only I’d tried harder, maybe I could have persuaded one or two people…
What’s that sports expression? I don’t want this to end with me thinking I’d left anything on the field. Or that, wait… that I hadn’t left it all on the field. Whatever. Something like that.
Besides, there are so many things to be said about the worst man ever to capture a major-party endorsement for POTUS. And the fact that anyone would consider voting for him a good idea is so stunning that at the very least, I must give vent to my amazement. (Today, I read yet another piece purporting to explain why people would support him, and sorry — it doesn’t get the job done. It still doesn’t add up.)
But let’s say, as Jerry Brown used to say, that less is more. Let’s say a minimalist approach would have persuaded more of my interlocutors — or, at least some.
Since the many things that are wrong with Trump were not the subject of the piece, his disqualifying qualities were dealt with merely in passing, very quickly. An excerpt from the piece:
WHEN THE republic was in danger, where did you stand? History will ask that question of Republican leaders who knew that Donald Trump was unfit to be commander in chief.
Some said so, despite possible political risks. Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former high-ranking officials such as Brent Scowcroft, Colin L. Powell, Henry M. Paulson Jr., Michael V. Hayden and Robert M. Gates did their best to help Americans understand the risk of electing an ignorant, thin-skinned man with no relevant experience. Scores of respected former ambassadors and assistant secretaries also spoke out. Meanwhile, other senior statesmen were quiet; George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, for example, said only that they would endorse neither candidate. Their voices could have made — could still make — a difference. So could the voices of former presidents: Though there have been hints that former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush support Hillary Clinton, they have not taken the public stand their nation needs….
Did you notice it? The Post‘s editorial board dealt adequately with Trump using only two, relatively mild, modifiers: “ignorant,” and “thin-skinned.” (They also said he had “no relevant experience,” but that was hardly necessary. That’s just one reason why he is so ignorant.)
Only one thing is missing, really, to completely persuade any reasonable, informed person that there is NO WAY this man could be considered for this job, even for a second: The fact that he is not merely ignorant; he is unwilling to learn. (He’s not like these guys.) Which, of course, is the worst, most damning, and permanent sort of ignorance. This man actually thinks he knows everything he needs to know. He’s utterly convinced of it.
That, in and of itself, completely disqualifies him. Maybe, under desperate circumstances, we could deal with a guy who could learn on the job, but not someone who refuses to.
The “thin-skinned part” takes him from merely grossly unqualified to being dangerous. This is a man who stops everything when he believes he has been disrespected — which is, of course, a lot of the time (and, in his defense, he’s not always imagining it). There is no issue so important that it cannot be dropped while he goes on the attack against the offender. Getting even is, for him at such times, the number-one priority in his universe.
You just don’t hand the awesome, historically unprecedented power of this job — which includes (and while it gets tiresome with repetition, one feels obliged to mention this until people actually listen) the ability to destroy most life on the planet in a matter of minutes — to someone who considers his own personal grudges so pathetically important. Even if he doesn’t decide to nuke somebody because they made a comment about his hands (I actually think the chances of his doing so are slim, although not quite “none”), the fact is that for a time, he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. We’ve seen it. And that’s bad enough.
Yes, there are many, many other things that can be said against this man — the racism, the xenophobia, the lifelong habit of treating women like dirt. Other stuff.
But to a reasonable, thoughtful person who takes voting seriously, “ignorant” and “thin-skinned” should be more than enough…
“We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post visible only to Facebook employees, a photograph of which was shared on Hacker News on Tuesday.
“We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg continued….
Absolutely. Diversity of thought is the most important kind — and too often, the kind people have the greatest trouble accepting. If you have a wide variety of skin colors and a perfect balance of gender, but everyone in your group thinks exactly alike, you have utterly failed to achieve a diverse result, and your group is weaker because of it.
Zuckerberg probably should have stopped there, though. He kind of lost me when he went on to say, “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”
Are there? At this point, it’s getting a little hard to see those “many reasons.” Hard for me, anyway; perhaps the vision of others is sharper.
So let’s assume those many reasons exist. There’s another problem here.
Diversity of thought, of ideas, is indeed critically important. It is essential, in a liberal democracy, to respect those who see things differently. (And to accept it if they win an election.)
But in 2016, we’re not experiencing a contest of ideas. We’ve gone well past that. We’re experiencing an election in which one of the major-party nominees is a man of demonstrably contemptible character, not just somebody you or I may disagree with on matters of policy.
And there’s a point at which, to the extent that we respect our own ability to reason and to form opinions that may or may not differ from the opinions of others, we have to make a judgment.
And in doing so, it’s legitimate for us to question Mr. Thiel’s judgment in continuing to support Mr. Trump despite shock after shock. And to question Mr. Zuckerberg’s for defending having someone of such questionable judgment on his board.
Mr. Thiel, and Mr. Zuckerberg, are entitled to their opinions. And we are entitled to ours…
They set the precedent, and Trump could not care less…
Sorry I haven’t had time to post today, ere now… Anyway, to business…
As bizarre and grotesquely inappropriate as some of the things Donald Trump said in the second debate were (“tremendous hate in her heart”), the most important and instructive was his threat to imprison his opponent if he wins the election.
Similarly, as agog as we may be from such outbursts as “Such a nasty woman!”, the one thing we heard in the third and final (thank the Lord) debate last night that was easily the most important, and instructive, was that Trump will not agree to abide by the results of the election. Something that was not a slip of the tongue or a momentary lapse, as he doubled down on it today.
As I said via Twitter last night:
America became America the moment that the Federalists accepted the results of the election of 1800. I don’t think Trump’s heard about that.
If there were referees in American politics, Trump would have been thrown out of the game for the offense in the second debate (actually, much sooner, but let’s stick with the debates). He completely and utterly disqualified himself.
And if the refs had been deaf and blind in that instance, they would have tossed him out for the offense last night. He showed in both instances that he has no idea at all what elections are about in this country.
The gift that America gave to the world was not merely the promise, but the fact, of the orderly and peaceful transfer of power from one person, party or faction to another. As I said above, the miracle of the election of 1800 — one that for sheer nastiness at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as this one — was that Jefferson took over from rival Adams, and everyone accepted it.
This miracle has been repeated every four years, with one exception: South Carolina, and a number of other Southern states, refused to accept the results of the election of 1860. Thanks to the preternatural wisdom, leadership and political skills of the man who won that election, and the blood of hundreds of thousands, the nation was saved. But that was the central crisis of our history, as Lincoln himself explained. It was the great test as to “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
So we got through that and made it all the way to 2016, and Donald Trump — a man who does not have a clue what this nation is all about, and does not care. Trump, the nominee of the party of Lincoln. God help us.
When he is asked whether he will accept the results of the election if he loses, he thinks it is a question about him, and what he wants, and how he feels. Because in his universe, everything is all about him.
The nation, and the things that make it exceptional and wonderful, matter not at all…
No, really, you should read it. It’s not the usual legalese that gives you a headache before you get through the first sentence. It’s pretty awesome. It tells home truths, lays down a challenge and dares ’em to come on.
Click here to see the original document. Here’s the full text:
October 13, 2016
VIA ELECTRONIC DELIVERY
Marc E. Kasowitz, Esq.
Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP
New York, NY 10019-6799
Re: Demand for Retraction
Dear Mr. Kasowitz:
I write in response to your letter of October 12, 2016 to Dean Baquet concerning your client Donald Trump, the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States. You write concerning our article “Two Women Say Donald Trump Touched Them Inappropriately” and label the article as “libel per se.” You ask that we “remove it from [our] website, and issue a full and immediate retraction and apology.” We decline to do so.
The essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a “piece of ass.” Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.
But there is a larger and much more important point here. The women quoted in our story spoke out on an issue of national importance – indeed, an issue that Mr. Trump himself discussed with the whole nation watching during Sunday night’s presidential debate. Our reporters diligently worked to confirm the women’s accounts. They provided readers with Mr. Trump’s response, including his forceful denial of the women’s reports. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence their voices. We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.
Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.
Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:
RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…
Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.
Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.
As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.
But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.
The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).
People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.
Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:
As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…
Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)
The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.
And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.
Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.
At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.
Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.
So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.
As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:
It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…
Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).
Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.
When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.
Hence what she said in that leaked speech.
I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.
So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.
It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?
Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?