The Long Presidential Journey from the Profound to the Petty

It’s November 19 and the man has spoken. The crowd is unimpressed.

That is all there is? Really?

Let’s face it. Our President is not what anyone would call widely admired. A few lawmakers in the Republican party, his party, are speaking out. More are said to be criticizing him bitterly in private. Even supporters see him as the most divisive leader the country has ever had.

George Templeton Strong of New York calls it for many.

A barbarian, a Scythian, a yahoo, a gorilla.

At this one event, you would think the President of the United States would have risen to the occasion.
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The Absurd Collapse of the American Ideal

We heard it as an impromptu bit of indelicate phrasing:

He was President, The World Trade Center came down during his reign.

Candidate Donald Trump, February 13, 2016

He was President, okay? Don’t blame him, or don’t blame him, but he was President.

Americans were taken aback at the brashness of the accusation, at the casual way it was tossed into the debate. President George W. Bush was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

There was a factual basis for the accusation. It was not simply the most reported incident, the President’s Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001. A month before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush heard the summary which began this way:

Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US

It was not only his dismissive response:

All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.

The institutional temptation is understandable. A new administration assumes office promising a change in national direction. Warnings, even desperate warnings, from the outgoing administration are easy to brush aside. The pleas to deal with the threat of terrorism were dismissed with derisive laughter.

Bill Clinton and his National Security team had practically begged President Bush and his people to take international terrorism seriously. They were brushed off. Agents that had been focused on stopping attacks were reassigned. Budgets were reduced. Programs were discontinued.

Donald Trump had historical evidence on his side. The gasp at the attack on a fellow Republican, the last Republican President, went beyond his words.

Headlines were all variations of the same note:

Trump blames George W. Bush for 9/11

Even now the real significance is hidden in the shock of accusation. The candidate described the time the previous Republican President had spent in office this way:
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The Difference Between a Bastard and a Stupid Bastard

I was thinking about the abrupt decline of a favorite film star of my youth and one of his best films.

In the early 1960s, a fictional President, made older than his age by the burdens of office, is about to support a candidate he does not like, does not enjoy being around. But Joe Cantwell is tough and decisive. And President Hockstader wants someone strong to lead the country through rough international times. When Cantwell threatens to release illegally obtained information, the President reacts:

And to think I was going to endorse you for President… You know, Joe. It’s not that you’re a bastard that I object to. I don’t object to that at all. It’s just that you’re such a stupid bastard that makes you insufferable.

Gore Vidal wrote the play The Best Man. It was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Cliff Robertson was the evil, slimy Joe Cantwell. The play, and that movie, may come closest to redeeming the truly awful public personna that Gore Vidal left as he departed this mortal coil. It was much harder to watch Vidal in televised interviews than it was to enjoy the movie script. He turned snide cynicism into an artform. One comment about Vidal stays with me: “He bites his betters on their kneecaps.”

Cliff Robertson played in other politically tinged films. John F. Kennedy asked that he be cast as young Kennedy in the movie PT 109.

Long before Harvey Weinstein exposed himself to us, years before he ever cast his eye on his first victim, Cliff Robertson convinced me of the deep down corruption of moviedom. He pretty much destroyed his career in 1977 through an unlucky bit of honesty. He accidentally discovered that a major studio had written a huge check to him for work he had never done. Robertson’s name was forged on the check, and the head of the studio pocketed the money.
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Republicans Frightened by the Bell

Most of us have heard some version of the tale. It has been around for a long, long time. Vermont scholar Marjorie Dundas is retired from teaching, but she has made a sort of second career in collecting variations of the same legend.

Thumbing through the anthology, I am struck by the diversity of nationality and ethnicity. The ancient wisdom of a judge in India, of a magistrate in mainland China, a county governor in Taiwan. Could the same ancient story come from so many places? I admit to a suspicion that the single origin of all those versions may be the creative imagination of some forgotten writer.

The story I heard as a kid was about the ancient Chinese magistrate. A priceless item has been stolen. A host of suspects appear before the magistrate. Each swears to innocence. There seems no way to find the actual thief. So the magistrate resorts to the supernatural.
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Trump Truth

The young inexperienced security guard had quickly won over pretty much all of us. He had a sort of naive air about him that almost compelled us into a protective mode. He made friends. So, when he and his wife lost the baby during her difficult pregnancy, our small office sort of closed ranks around them both.

One loutish supervisor tried to comfort them with a larger perspective. “A miscarriage is just nature’s way of getting rid of its mistakes.”
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Ethnic Logic: Children to Become Strangers in a Strange Land


I cannot claim to be diligent about exercise.

It has been years since I ran or even walked for any purpose other than getting some short distance away.


It isn’t a defiance of mild medical admonition, exactly. It’s more an issue of time. Sometimes what is most important is not what is most urgent. At least that’s the story I tell myself.

I still see folks as I commute. You can tell the people doing their daily obligation to health and wellbeing. They do the same thing I sometimes did in my less sedentary days. I carried a stick. It was for a couple of reasons.

It signaled to me that it was time to adopt a fitness persona. Tired? Keep running because I had the stick.

But it was also for early morning or late night protection. I’m pretty big and kind of dopey looking. So nobody is likely to bother me. And walking in most neighborhoods is safer than you might think. But why take chances?

So I see folks walking or running with their sticks in hand, and I know they’re exercising.

A few years ago, one early morning walker in Montgomery, Alabama, suddenly found himself surrounded by police. Officers from two patrol cars were joined by another on a motorcycle. They questioned the man. Did he just come from South Perry Street? As questioning went on, the reason became apparent. The police had a report of someone walking with a crowbar.
Continue reading “Ethnic Logic: Children to Become Strangers in a Strange Land”

Sheriff Joe is Not a Good Guy


She was getting angrier as we argued on the Church parking lot. She controlled her irritation at my unreasonable position. But, finally, she had had enough. She pointed her finger at me and spoke deliberately. “When you get to be my age…”

The words went through my head: “I’m in love.” She had no idea how much younger she was than was I.

It was years ago. We sometimes tell the story together, and she makes a point of assuring me I still look much younger than my age.

Our argument is lost to me now. I wonder if she remembers it. It probably had to do with some change in ritual.
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Why Trump Goes Flake Squeezing

The Christine Jorgensen Story was a bit of a stylistic throwback, even in 1970. It was kind of a low-grade melodrama, but the sympathetic treatment of its subject was groundbreaking.

In 1970, we were barely emerging from an ethos in which any sort of sexual divergence from socially approved norms was considered perversion.

Christine Jorgensen was a real person. She had started life as George and became Christine through sex reassignment surgery in 1951. That was way, way before transgender became a word known to much of anyone. The film introduced the idea to a resistant society. Most viewers had to have nodded in recognition of our common upbringing:

George, remember? I told you before. Your sister has her toys, and you have yours.

Look, you have so many lovely toys of your own. Come over. Take a look at your Erector set, why don’t we build something?

Your father will be so proud of you. Let’s build a beautiful, big skyscraper. The best building, the most beautiful building, in all the world.

The Christine Jorgensen Story, 1970

The film brought her into what would probably have been a fleeting bit of fame. But then she found herself at the center of a United States Senate campaign.

When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a Republican to take his place in the United States Senate. Rockefeller had always been more conservative than was generally acknowledged. He had a reputation as a liberal Republican mostly because of his clashes with what we euphemistically called “cultural conservatives” in those days. That was the polite, politically correct term for those who thought black people were too damn pushy about voting rights and anti-discrimination laws. In those days, lots of folks felt that black people should have been grateful that lynching had been confined mostly to the south.

Rockefeller appointed conservative Congressman Charles Goodell to fill Kennedy’s seat. Goodell was not well known except as a sort of right winger. But a student intern from Wellesley College, working in his office, described him as a thoughtful man who had growing concerns about the conflict in Vietnam. That conservative Republican student was developing doubts of her own. Her name was Hillary Rodham.

After Goodell became Senator Goodell, he began openly questioning the war. Soon, he was speaking out at protest rallies. I remember listening to him him as we peaceably assembled in October, 1970 in Washington DC. He voiced his departure from a vain and tragic hope:

That we can convert, by words alone, a corrupt Saigon government into a government representative and responsive to the needs of its people.

Senator Charles Goodell, October, 1970

It was not a surprise that the Nixon administration conducting that war was not happy that their conservative friend was urging us to get out of a losing situation. President Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to destroy Senator Goodell.

Those of us who remember Nixon’s Vice President are most likely to recall a few pithy phrases:

…an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.


nattering nabobs of negativism.

His attacks on Charles Goodell were, at first, notable:

I will NOT support a radical liberal no matter what party he belongs to.

Then they became spectacular. His most aggressive attack seems pretty mild today. At the time, the words were considered so inflammatory they were disowned and criticized by Republican candidates for office across the country. He was asked about his criticisms about Senator Goodell, who was, after all, a member of his own party.

If you look at the statements Mr. Goodell made during his time in the House and compare them with some of the statements I have been referring to, you will find that he is truly the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.

Spiro Agnew, October 8, 1970, New Orleans

And so Christine Jorgensen became a household name. She was the subject of interviews, mentioned inferentially in films and television shows for decades. Christine Jorgensen died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 62.

Charles Goodell was defeated in his 1970 re-election campaign. The New York liberal vote was divided between Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger. Conservative Party candidate James Buckley was elected for a term with slightly more than a third of the votes cast.

I occasionally think about that 1970 campaign. It was a contentious and discouraging year. The attack using Christine Jorgensen’s name forced me to think about, and to be ashamed of, the way I had always considered sexuality and those whose orientation differed from my own.

Now I think about 1970 as a year of protest. And I think about the spectacle of a conservative Republican national administration targeting an otherwise conservative Republican Senator for defeat because of genuine differences of conscience.

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is said already to be a target of the Trump administration in next year’s campaign.

The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.

Politico, July 17, 2017

It seems unlikely that this is a result of the failure of healthcare repeal. It is true that Senator Flake did not endorse the last proposals to end healthcare for millions of people. Neither had several other Republican Senators who are not targeted by our President.

Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas announced they would vote against repeal. Two other Republican Senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine had already said they would vote no on repeal. They were not targeted by Donald Trump for defeat.

Senator Flake has not yielded to loud and persistent pressure from his constituents to come out against healthcare repeal. He has refused to oppose President Trump.

In fact, on most issues, Senator Jeff Flake is among the Senate’s most reliable conservatives. The NRA is enthusiastic about him. Opponents of abortion rights give him a 100% rating. He is a hardline hawk on deficit spending. He is a firm advocate for a balanced budget amendment. He opposes gay marriage. He is a reliable vote against any enforcement of laws against hate crimes that target gay people. The list goes on and on.

Yet President Trump vowed to spend a million dollars of his own money to defeat Senator Flake. Why?

Here’s why.

In 2016, Senator Jeff Flake was reported to have told then candidate Trump that some of his remarks about women were personally offensive, and that some positions seemed like those of a hopeless bigot. He told him that to his face.

Here is what he said publicly:

There are certain things you can’t do as a candidate, and some of the things he’s done, I think, are beyond the pale.

Senator Jeff Flake, June 12, 2016

And there it is: the difference between today and almost half a century ago.

In 1970:

Spiro Agnew worked at provocation. He used alliterative phraseology to attract attention to what he called “positive polarization.” But, in the end, his motivation was an actual important difference.

Senator Goodell has sought, flamboyantly and ceaselessly, to openly divorce himself from our President and from the Nixon administration.

Spiro Agnew, October 7, 1970

The word for that is policy.

And today:

A year ago, Senator Jeff Flake told his constituents, and told Donald Trump to his face, that he didn’t like how Mr. Trump was acting. The President still seethes with resentment.

The word for that is petty.

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The Presidential Denial that Denies Itself


She was adamant.

They never called here.
I never spoke to them.

The young woman was insistant. And she, emphatically, was not telling the truth.

A carefully planned celebration was about to fall through.

The manager of our St. Louis branch office had become a popular figure among employees. He had a talent for listening carefully, for detecting hidden motives. When he had caught a glimmer of what inspired an individual, he would use that insight to motivate.

One employee wanted to learn a new computer language. The manager loaned him books, then made a point of asking him about his progress. When progress lagged, the manager stayed after hours and worked with the aspiring employee.

Later, when a recruiter was told about the developing skill, word spread. The employee found himself in demand. He turned down job offers and continued studying after work with the encouragement and occasional help from the manager.

I should know. I was that employee.

The manager’s penchant for helping seemed to dovetail with company goals. That made him popular with the home office in Iowa. In retrospect, the announcement seemed inevitable. The manager was being promoted. He would no longer be among us.

Employees made plans for a going away party. It would be a surprise. An upscale restaurant was around the corner and arrangements were made. A trophy was prepared, speeches were composed. The President of the company was contacted and booked a flight. It got to be a big deal.

On the final day, the little group who had been working with the restaurant made excuses and dashed off to prepare tables and placements.

They were soon back with the bad news. The planner at the restaurant told them there was no room after all. Unexpected crowds had shown up for lunch and the reserved tables were suddenly filled with patrons. They returned to the office, defeated.

I was among those who went back to the restaurant to find out what had gone wrong. We located the manager, who summoned the planner. The conference turned into a confrontation.

They never called here.
I never spoke to them.

The manager could have posed for a portrait of befuddled confusion.

It all eventually turned out okay. A few hasty telephone calls to a competitor restaurant a few blocks away solved the problem. They were busy, but their people would find a way to make it work, and they would find that way now. Right now.

I have had occasion to remember that incident, and the planner who denied any planning, as our national drama continues to unfold.

One constant throughout our history, even during foreign invasion, even as the White House was burned to ashes, even during the Civil War, has been a reverence for free elections. The possibility that close elections were stolen has been a matter of nationwide controversy.

The idea that a hostile foreign government, a traditional adversary, had succeeded in influencing how voters cast their ballots has been earth shattering. As evidence has piled up, that idea has acquired more than plausibility.

The possibility that the very systems used to house voting registration records had been infiltrated, that the infestation had occurred in more than three fourths of the states, has matured from possibility into near certainty.

The prospect of actual participation of Americans in that interference has produced reactions ranging from furious rage among patriots to angry denial among those who might be suspected. It should produce both.

Throughout it all, our new President has combined protests of innocence, counter accusation, executive orders to close off investigation, and furtive actions that have created and intensified suspicion. The firing of the head of the FBI did not douse the flames. Flirtations with officials of the former Soviet Union have not helped. Unexplained policy lurches favoring that nation of confirmed conspirators have not quelled the mistrust of our new national leadership.

But political life being what it is, Republican officials have cautiously defended my President.

Lindsey Graham tiptoed to the edge of a forthright defense on Face the Nation:

The hearing was pretty good. No collusion with a Russians … yet.

That “yet” was more than an escape hatch. It was a wide open side door. At least it seemed that way at first.

Then the good Senator proved what a friend he could be as he explained why my President must be innocent:

He doesn’t believe he did anything wrong with the Russians and I tend to believe him.

He can’t collude with his own government. Why do you think he’s colluding with the Russians

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), June 11, 2017

So President Trump is innocent. Because he is not competent enough to be guilty?

Others are more steely in their insistence. When it comes to President Trump’s denials that Russians interfered in any way with 2016 elections, conservative David French, at National Review, has been a true believer.

The Russians hacked a few computers, but they did not “hack” an election. The media’s persistent insinuations otherwise are leading millions of Americans to believe that the Russians actually meddled with the election process itself, including with voting machines. There is zero evidence that occurred. None. Zilch. Nada.

David French, the National Review, March 31, 2017

As we might expect, Sean Spicer agrees. He has been carrying the President’s message for months. There is no evidence of meddling. None.

There is zero evidence that they actually influenced the election.

Sean Spicer, January 2, 2017

The New York Times publishes a bit of research, a story replete with Trump operatives, Russia, spies, and technology. And so, of course, President Trump’s Chief of Staff talks about fake news:

I can assure you, and I’ve been I’ve been approved to say this, that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it’s grossly overstated. And it was wrong. And there’s nothing to it.

And so, if I can say that to the American people, then what does it say about the story?

Reince Priebus, February 19, 2017

Yeah. If he can say that to the American people, what does that demonstrate? Well, let’s see.

My President, President Trump, who has denied that anyone had any evidence that Russia had interfered in the election that put him in office, now says this:

Well I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it. But nobody wants to talk about that. The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before they even — before the election.

President Donald Trump, June 25, 2017

There has been some internet ink spilled over President Obama’s unwillingness to make public the evidence of Russian interference unless Republican leaders in Congress agreed. Senator Mitch McConnell threatened to accuse him, and his administration, of making up the story, of lying.

Several observers make the same interesting point. One is an internet site aptly named Political Irony:

How can Trump claim that he just found out about the Russian meddling? He is the president, and the CIA (with their evidence and proof) reports to him. There is no way he didn’t know this.

It does bring back memories of the restaurant planner who nearly destroyed an office celebration at the promotion of a popular manager.

We eventually got an apology from her boss, the manager of the restaurant, and his boss, a Vice President of the restaurant chain. Both the manager and the Vice President put on aprons and catered a company luncheon for us at our office at no cost.

How did they know she was not telling the truth? They explained. In her insistent denial, she had gotten mixed up.

They never called here.
I never spoke to them.

Then she blurted out what she thought was additional conclusive proof.

Besides, I told them on the phone that we would be too busy that day.

I thought about the moral equivalent, substituting a defensive President for a defensive restaurant planner.

There was no Russian interference. There is no evidence. There is nothing to investigate. It’s all fake news.

Besides, with all that evidence of Russian meddling, OBAMA should have done something.

“The CIA gave him information on Russia”

“He did nothing about it.”


Donald Trump should put on an apron. Honorable man that he is, I’m sure he’ll want to cater an apology event.

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Demanding Loyalty,
Demanding Adoration


President Trump responds to the allegation that he demanded personal loyalty from then FBI Director James Comey:

I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say, ‘I want you to pledge allegiance.’ Who would do that? Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense. No, I didn’t say that.

President Donald Trump,   June 9, 2017

Some boorishness might be expected in a well known figure thrust suddenly, unexpectedly, into a position of national leadership. Some might have expected that the disrespectful liberties taken with unwilling women would provoke lasting damage. History will show none of that. Such incidents instead have served as a portend, a quest for complete dominance characterizing every relationship.

Even taking control of ongoing investigations, manipulating them to his own purposes would never serve as a warning to the most slavishly loyal of his followers.

When a national leader, one who insists on personal loyalty above all else, even loyalty to country, meets with officials of his administration, we might expect some bowing and scraping. After all, those whose future depends on the good will of the one they serve are to be expected to heap praise upon him, to seek his blessing, to assume an attitude of worship.

There is no actual transcript of the meeting. If there ever was, it was lost to history. But there are occasional reenactments. The entire nation witnessed one theatrical performance the other day.

There were expressions of humble gratitude, humble thanks for unexpected honor:

thank you[1]

thank you for the opportunity[7]

For the privilege

can’t thank you enough for the privileges[9]

an incredible privilege[14]

great privilege you’ve given me[1]

privileged to be here[8]

It’s a privilege to serve[13]

greatest privilege of my life[19]

The honor

what an incredible honor[9]

an honor to serve[14]

It was a great honor[2]

it’s an honor[3]

an even greater honor[2]

honor to serve[1]

Deeply honored[8]

a great honor[10]

deeply honored[5]

Personal Praise

the leadership that you’ve shown[9]

with your direction[16]

leading across the board[15]

I want to congratulate you[6]

You’re absolutely right[16]

my hat’s off to you[12]

Messages from the people, his people,
of their love and adoration:

The response is fabulous around the country.[4]

excited and enthusiastic folks are[9]

Hundreds and hundreds of people
were just so thrilled

The enthusiasm was uncontainable,
soaring into worship

It’s a joy[17]

an honor to be your steward[5]

It’s a new day[15]

Finally blossoming into a climactic benediction of worshipful praise and gratitude:

We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us[18]

A sort of deification of national leaders can be expected after they are gone: a part of traditional reverence to the past, a respectful bow toward those who once led the most powerful nation on earth.

Still, we might expect a bit of shock when an emperor proclaims himself to be a god while he is still living.

As we learn that those same leaders were then ordered to wait on him and run beside his chariot as if they were hounds, we can begin to get the full measure of the obeisance he needed, and demanded, and got.

The dominance, the demand for personal loyalty, the need for worshipful adoration, were part of his eventual downfall.

Nearly two thousand years later, Caligula is still remembered.

He will never be remembered fondly.

Note: We thank the participants in this week’s re‑enactment:

  1. Rex W. Tillerson
  2. Steven Mnuchin
  3. James N. Mattis
  4. Jeff Sessions
  5. Ryan Zinke
  6. Sonny Perdue
  7. Wilbur Ross
  8. R. Alexander Acosta
  9. Tom Price
  10. Ben Carson
  11. Elaine L. Chao
  12. Rick Perry
  13. Betsy DeVos
  14. Mike Pompeo
  15. Nikki R. Haley
  16. Mick Mulvaney
  17. Dan Coats
  18. Reince Priebus
  19. Mike Pence

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