Remember in 2008 when Dick Cheney, when confronted with polls showing two-thirds of Americans opposed the Iraq War quagmire, responded with So?
I thought about that when I read this part of the Washington Post‘s story on Obama’s struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault:
In early September, Johnson, Comey, and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.
The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.
“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.
So? went McConnell. With apologies to “Make America Great Again”, the most important slogan of the 2016 election was “When they go low, we go high”. It’s a beautiful sentiment that is also a recipe for failure when your opponents are the Dick Cheneys and Mitch McConnells of the world, who go low like their lives depend on it.
If the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump administration’s collusion proves substantive, I predict the only thing we’ll hear from McConnell, Ryan & Co is one big fat So?
The American Health Care Act will throw 23 million people out of health coverage and gut Medicaid in order to give the rich a massive tax cut they don’t need. So?
Trump has mishandled classified info, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, threatened the FBI director, and so much more they’d be pissed about if he were a Democrat. So?
Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imaginationabout the development of radio technology and culture, and their impact on 20th century America. Also learned, in a tidbit about Franklin Roosevelt’s crusade against newspapers, that he sounded a lot like another ostensibly anti-media president:
Privately, the president in 1940 ask the new FCC Chairman, Lawrence Fly, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” Publicly, through his press secretary, Steve Early, Roosevelt told broadcasters that “the government is watching” to see if they air any “false news.” Radio, Early warned, “might have to be taught manners if it were a bad child.” Network executives understood “false news” to be news critical of the administrations policies.
Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
If President Hillary Clinton had done this Congress would have impeached her quicker than Trump can tweet something asinine, and deservedly so.
This all continues to be insane. It’s like being in a car with a drunk driver. I don’t care whose idea it was to let him drive; I don’t care about his protests that RelaxI’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.
More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”
Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.
TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:
The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.
But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.
“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.
The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.
Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.
[Trump’s] tweets, however, are exposing something else in many of Trump’s friends and supporters — an extremely high tolerance for dishonesty and an oft-enthusiastic willingness to defend sheer nonsense. Yes, I know full well that many of his supporters take him “seriously, not literally,” but that’s a grave mistake. My words are of far lesser consequence than the president’s, yet I live my life knowing that willful, reckless, or even negligent falsehood can end my career overnight. It can end friendships instantaneously. Why is the truth somehow less important when the falsehoods come from the most powerful and arguably most famous man in the world?
I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.”
GOP gratitude for beating Hillary Clinton cannot and must not extend into acceptance (or even endorsement) of presidential dishonesty and impulsiveness. Trump isn’t just doing damage to himself. As he lures a movement into excusing his falsehoods, he does damage to the very culture and morality of his base. The truth still matters, even when fighting Democrats you despise.
President Trump refused to back down on Friday after his White House aired an unverified claim that Britain’s spy agency secretly monitored him during last year’s campaign at the behest of President Barack Obama, fueling a rare rupture between the United States and its most important international partner. …
“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a joint White House news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
The eerie similarities between Donald Trump and Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development have already been documented. One Lucille moment came to me recently, as I absorbed the latest whiny tweets and self-pitying/antagonistic statements from the purported president and his obedient surrogates, that I thought was clarifying:
“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”
In the episode “My Mother, the Car” of season 1, a whole web of Lucille’s lies is slowly revealed, and she’s finally pinned by her frustrated children who are yet again having to deal with the collateral damage of their narcissist mother’s deceit and wanton self-aggrandizement. “I just want my children to love me,” she says, in a rare moment of vulnerability.
“Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer,” Michael replies. After a pause and a moment of clarity, Lucille admits: “I’ve been a horrible mother.” But the siblings, having previously discussed how when she’d said that in the past they didn’t have the heart to confirm that realization, instead fall in for a group hug and validate Lucille, says in fact she’s been a great mother. And the old glint in her eye returns, the moment of clarity dissolving.
When I see Trump huffing about inauguration crowds and whining about protestors and complaining “the media” isn’t being very nice to him, I think of that quote: “Stop lying. Stop manipulating. Just be nicer.”
So much of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted due to his total lack of self-control and paper-thin skin. It’s why he lashes out at the faintest hint of someone not toeing his line, whether it’s Angela Merkel or John McCain. If he were able to let himself achieve a semblance of maturity, he’d be able to see why this is a bad thing.
“It’s not that Trump is wrong about how those people in society don’t respect him — he’s right about that,” writes conservative blogger Rod Dreher. “But it’s that he gives them so much power over him. And this is going to be his undoing. Character is destiny.”
(Which means we’re really screwed.)
It’s not that hard, man. If you stop lying (or repeating falsehoods or brazenly asserting things that are certifiably false or whatever you want to call it), the people who don’t like you might slowly stop assuming you’re a liar. If you treat your opponents (and allies) with respect rather than tweet insults at them, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to see you as a decent person with differing views, rather than a greedy egomaniac who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But once you’re surrounded by sycophants and a degraded political apparatus unequipped to offer even a modicum of restraint, that chance for a moment of clarity dissolves into nothing.
He is disordered, and disorder is what he is bringing. Not just to immigrants, but to all of us.
Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.
There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)
The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.
Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.
The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.
But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:
I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.
For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.
As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.
So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.
As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chroniclecalls him:
As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.
It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)
And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:
Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.
“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”
When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”
“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”
“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”
“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”
“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”
“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”
Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.
Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.
Hope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.
The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.
(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)
More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:
He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office
As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.
Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:
Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.