Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Presidents (page 1 of 4)

The broken presidency

I love John Dickerson for the Slate Political Gabfest and his presidential history podcast, and now I love him for his recent cover story in The Atlantic about how the office of the presidency is broken and was so way before Trump:

His central thesis is something I’ve thought about for a while: that the job of being president has become too big and darn near impossible. Long gone are the days when the president could go hiking with John Muir for long stretches without an entourage (Theodore Roosevelt) or go on a golfing vacation during a natural catastrophe without getting excoriated for callousness (Eisenhower).

The unwritten job description has bloated so much that our collective expectations for the position have become absurdly high. Dickerson interviews lots of former White House staffers from recent administrations and captures a visceral sense of the ever-increasing workload and expectations they and their presidents had to deal with.

Though this problem has been growing since the latter 20th century, I noticed it acutely during Obama’s terms, which coincided with the emergence of social media as a new means of instant mass communication and the exacerbation of an already vacuous news cycle.

Here’s Dickinson on what Obama had to deal with immediately before and after the secret meetings about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011:

an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.

Obama is a smart guy who is capable of compartmentalizing, but this is an insane workload. And that was just one week. Missing are all the speeches after mass shootings, campaigning, and other attendant trappings of the modern office.

And then came Trump:

The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

So far Trump has upended a lot of the assumptions we’ve laid on the office of the president. In some ways this has been bad and downright nefarious (*insert about 724 scandals here*), but in another way I think it could be a blessing in disguise.

The presidency needed to change. That would have been true even if Clinton had won. Now that we’re stuck with this new reality, I think it should compel us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to expect from the presidency.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to help with hurricane relief if he’s just going to swoop in for a photo-op.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to have a fully formed position on every domestic and foreign issue.

Maybe we shouldn’t treat the occupant of the presidency like the country’s surrogate daddy or CEO who’s untouchable by the rule of law.

This does not excuse Trump’s inexcusable behavior, which is well documented on this blog. Instead, we can view it as the straw that finally broke the presidency’s back. We ought to take this opportunity to reset our expectations about the office.

Dickerson has some ideas on how to do that: among them a non-pliant Congress, a strong Cabinet, empowered White House staff, a patient news media, an understanding public, and a self-possessed president.

If that lists strikes you as unrealistic or even absurd, you’re half right. Things change whether we expect them to or not. Here’s hoping changes to the presidency come to good.

Lincoln’s letter to Grant: ‘You were right, and I was wrong’

This letter from President Lincoln to Major General Ulysses Grant in July 1863 might be the last documented instance of a president apologizing for anything:

My dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

After reading Edmund Morris’s trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt I made TR my new favorite president, but I think I have to revert back to Lincoln.

h/t Michael Wade

Trump’s Razor

Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

— Thomas Friedman

Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.

And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!

A Hopey Changey Library

Somehow I missed this story on how the forthcoming Obama Center (above) will be challenging the “scam” of presidential libraries. The author, who wrote a book on the topic, lays out how:

The National Archives and Records Administration—which operates presidential library-museums for every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush—won’t be operating either for Obama. His private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the museum. And there really won’t be a presidential library. The Obama Foundation will pay for NARA to digitize unclassified records and release them to the public as they become available, but the center’s “Library,” which may or may not house a local branch of the Chicago Public Library, will not contain or control presidential papers and artifacts, digital or otherwise. Instead, according to a NARA press release that called the museum “a new model for the preservation and accessibility of presidential records,” those records will be stored in “existing NARA facilities”—meaning one or more of the agency’s research or records centers across the country.

Is this good or bad?

The notion that a federal presidential library would contain no papers, and not actually be federally operated, is astonishing. But to those like myself who have advocated for years—without much success—that it’s time to reform the broken presidential library system, it’s also an important positive development, and one that could be revolutionary.

Oh.

Though I’ve been to several presidential museums, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the library portions of them. I wonder how this will play among scholars who actually need access to the records. Will it be more convenient or less convenient for them to be separated from the “flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history” (LOL)? We’ll see, I guess.

I do like the idea of including a branch of the Chicago Public Library. That won’t assuage all the other local concerns about the Obama Library, but it would go a long way to keep what can easily become an isolated, self-contained operation connected with the community that feeds it. All the better it will be for the former Reader in Chief.

Not sure if any of the other modern presidential libraries incorporate public libraries, but that would be a mutually beneficial new trend.

Fakelin Newsevelt

Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination about 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.

The past isn’t dead, etc.

What I Think Right Now

  1. Trump was allowed to fire Comey.
  2. Comey deserved to be fired.
  3. Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
  4. But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
  5. 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 Relax I’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

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.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

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.

If the President Tweets It

When the National Review is calling Trump out, it’s worth reading:

[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 guess it’s the “if the president tweets it, it’s not a lie” doctrine. That’s worked out well before.

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.

Glass Case of Delusion

Today in “Donald Trump doesn’t realize he is the President of the United States”:

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.”

Donald Trump will tweet anything that is said on TV. And when I say anything, I mean a-ny-thi-ng. The only difference between him and Ron Burgundy is Ron faced consequences for it.

Lucille Trump

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.

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