Thursday, August 31, 2017

Daddy Nation

Joy Ann-Reid appeared Tuesday on "The Daily Show" and together with host Trevor Noah expressed the conventional wisdom about presidential leadership. That which passes for wisdom spans the political spectrum from far right to far left and, presumably, is especially strong among independent, non-ideological individuals. Noah remarked

Donald Trump is currently traveling as president, counseling the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Could this not be- could this not be the moment to where he pivots to presidential, and unifies the nation duing its time of crisis?.... This is a valid question.

After chuckling, Reid responded

Only if he goes into Trump Tower, locks himself in, sends out a different person that isn't Donald Trump, that his name is Donald Trump, who is a completely different person, and maybe that person can pivot and be the president we need. Donald Trump is 71. Do you know any 7-year-olds? I do. They are what they are. They're not going to change. He is that guy. 

The ellipsis in Noah's comment replaces "You guys are all assholes- every single one of  you." Evidently, Noah is unaware that the audience laughter which annoyed him reflects his own perspective (and that of Reid) that we actually want the President to be "presidential" as he- and most others- define it.

But as Charlie Pierce explains in criticizing Glenn Thrush's yearning that  President Trump "recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks

This is how Ronald Reagan skated on the crimes of the Iran-Contra affair. In Mark Hertsgaard's study of the press in the Reagan era, On Bended Knee, Ben Bradlee, the hero editor of Watergate, says flatly that another "failed presidency" would be disastrous, and that Katherine Graham, the hero publisher of Watergate, "called for a retreat" in her newspaper's aggressiveness in the wake of Watergate and the rise of the Reagan Administration. You can see this at work as well in TheNew York Times's decision to bury the story of the George W. Bush administration's illegal surveillance program so as "not to affect" the 2004 election, even though that is precisely what that sort of story is supposed to do.

This is more than mere deference to power. A lot of institutions are powerful but still subject to an aggressive press and a skeptical public. But the presidency has grown to the point where a failed president shakes the comfort zone down to its foundations. Too many people want a unifying Daddy in the White House so much that, if a president is not up to the job, those people will create that unifying Daddy out of shoddy material and wishful thinking. As Hertsgaard wrote, reflecting on the presidency of Ronald Reagan:

      "…[it was] a time when the national political debate was dominated by a bundle of ideas  that almost without     exception were contradicted by objective facts, common sense, or  both."

We don't even have to go back some 30 years to the dramatically overrated President Ronald(6) Wilson(6) Reagan(6).   We have an example in this century alone, when in the wake of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks, President Bush climbed onto a fire truck at Ground Zero, put his arm around a retired firefighter, and spoke to the crowd through a bullhorn, at which time

The crowd began chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.” As the cheers died down, Bush started speaking. Someone from the crowd yelled that they couldn’t hear the president. Bush, with his arm still draped around Beckwith, shouted into his bullhorn, "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

The president’s words were met with whooping and hollering from the crowd.

The media swooned. The politicians swooned. The country swooned. And the Bush Administration made its dishonest argument to the nation, now fertile ground for tales of aluminum tubes, yellowcake uranium powder, and "weapons of mass destruction."  In the  end, the Administration launched an ultimately disastrous war in Iraq. Compounding the error, to this very day the federal government is partnered with Saudi Arabia, the nation giving birth to most  of  the 9/11/01 terrorists, in a bombing campaign which has caused the death of approximately 8,000 Yemenis and the displacement of millions.

"Be careful what you wish for" is a useful aphorism. Presidents Reagan and Bush 43 were both great unifying figures in times of crisis, and we are the worst off for it.  Fortunately- whether or not because of  age- whatever unifying power President Trump, a would-be autocrat, may exhibit in the next few days will not last, and we will be the better off because of  it.

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