Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:
On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.
As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.
I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.
We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.
Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.
Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:
Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.
According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:
As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?
I think it’s very clear that Rod Rosenstein is now an important figure in history. If he stays silent and things go south for Trump, he’s a co-conspirator, possibly, but if he does the right thing, he could become famous. It’s not too late. He could simply appoint a special prosecutor, resign, get rich in the private sector.
I think the personal loyalty oath [that Trump reportedly asked of Comey] is a huge deal. If that’s true, how can any FBI director pursue the Russian case?
Bill Popik likewise fears conflicting loyalties within the administration:
Early on in Trump’s administration (imagine—it’s actually still early, but it seems like an eternity ago) I thought that what might save us were the career bureaucrats three or four levels down in the government who would simply figure out ways to drag their feet to ensure that the most onerous dictates of this administration didn’t come to fruition. Now, I’m not so sure. We are seeing that Trump insists on loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him and his causes above all else, and that he’ll enforce that through the appointment of loyalists who will drive fealty down through the agencies they lead.
Jay, on the other hand, is “unconcerned at this time”:
I think Fallows exaggerates Trump’s failings and Comey’s probity. We have too soon forgotten the evils of J. Edgar Hoover, a too-independent and too-powerful FBI chief. Comey was going Hoover on us with his dissing of Lynch and Trump. If he “lost confidence” in Lynch, imagine what little respect he would give to Sessions. It seemed clear to me, and I thought everyone else, that Comey’s days were numbered, and Trump only waited until he had an attorney general confirmed to can Comey.
Anyway, Clinton, Inc. and the Democratic Party present an immediate and serious threat to my rights and liberties under the 1st and 2nd Amendments. They also present the same danger to some freedoms I enjoy but that are not protected by the Constitution, such as sport hunting. It is for that reason I have a high tolerance for Trump’s shenanigans.
Jack was alive to remember Watergate, but writes, “I just do not think it has come to that—yet”:
Trump is many things, but not evil. Just a stumbling guy who stumbled upon a huge part of America that hated the Republican and Democratic/Academic/Media/Entertainment class that heretofore has controlled our political discourse and political system. He spoke to their concerns. That part of America elected him. You really should get used to it.
Stephen B. voted for Gary Johnson, but he’s also skeptical that the Watergate-Comey comparison may be overblown by partisanship:
We have been in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom since Watergate. A good percentage of Americans are simply playing a team sport. And like football, the brain damage is starting to accumulate to our society.
Whether you agree with the Watergate comparison or not, the reaction to the dismissal of Comey highlights the extent to which many Americans have lost trust—in government, in the media, or in their fellow citizens. And those accumulated losses could pose a very real threat. As Michael writes:
I just wanted to quibble with one statement made in the post:
At worst, such efforts [at interference by the Russian government] might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy.
I would argue that this is exactly backwards: The results of an election are a one-time thing, for the most part. (Brexit is an exception.) But I believe the Russian endgame is more about the latter than the former; I think it’s well documented that their MO is to sow confusion and uncertainty—even to the point of supporting both sides of a conflict—simply to render an opponent unable to act effectively.
In short, getting Trump elected was a nice-to-have; the real point was to weaken faith in democracy as an institution. This is the potential lasting damage.
In response to three recent pieces—one discussing the public and private parts of the U.S. system of self-governance that are still working, another arguing that Donald Trump’s monologue to the New York Times represented a new frontier in self-revelation, a third saying that a handful of Republican Senators have the nation’s fate at their disposal—several reactions from readers.
What about the Democrats? A reader with long professional experience in government writes:
I just read your post calling for three Republicans to demonstrate civic courage. As you put it, “A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people.”
But it doesn’t—it relies on those three plus 48 Democrats. It is striking how often it’s just assumed that Democrats in this kind of situation will do the right thing.
But why should they? If the 10 Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried were consulting their political self-interest in the way that seemingly all Republicans are doing, some at least might not be resisting Donald Trump as they are. Yet they remain steadfast—just as Democratic members remained steadfast in 2009-2010 in voting for the ACA and cap-and-trade, even when their political futures were in jeopardy.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile sometime to do a post about how Democrats seem so much more able these days to maintain our standards of governance and to display civic virtue under pressure. That might be an edifying meditation.
What about the Attorney(s) General? In response to my noting that the Mueller investigation was (at the time) had not been derailed, a reader notes:
It is extraordinary that an article on this subject did not even mention the extremely important role played by the attorneys general of the several states in restraining Captain Combover. The role of the states in our political system has never been as significant as it is now.
Fair point. Last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival I did a very interesting (to me) Q-and-A with Xavier Becerra, long-time U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has recently become California’s attorney general, on exactly this point. When a transcript or recording is available, I’ll post a link.
What about the Germans? I noted yesterday the historical, ummm... haziness with which Donald Trump discussed 19th- and 20th-century events in Europe, after his visit to Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week. (For instance: Trump apparently thought that Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe who died in 1821, was the same Napoleon who oversaw the grand-boulevards redesign of Paris 50 years later. Like Frederick Douglass, you really couldn’t keep that Napoleon down.)
A reader who is originally from Europe and now works for a famous U.S. high-tech company, says Trump’s description was a little worse than I let on:
I just read your article about Trump’s NYT interview and was surprised (yes, really) about what he said about Napoleon and Hitler. Since I'm interested in WWII in general and the Soviet-German conflict in particular, I tried to parse this part, to no avail:
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
I guess this reflects a view many people hold—that the Germans went into war and froze to death because of lack of winter clothing—but it’s way too simplistic and doesn’t describe what really went on.
The Moscow campaign started in October when the going was still good for the Germans. They had been slowed down by the Russians but still had a chance. However, due to strong reinforcements from Siberia and very harsh punishments for deserters, the Soviets managed to stay in Moscow and even carry out a counter-attack. The latter was stalled after a while and the Germans held the ground over the winter through better tactics.
There were German deaths from cold in Stalingrad, but the city had been surrounded and there would have been deaths anyway. In fact, most of the “consolidations” (I would assume this means holding ground and strengthening defenses) of the German army actually improved their situation in the short run and hence prolonged the war.
The bottom line is, his description of what went on in WWII isn’t really any better than his account of Napoleon. Like I said to a friend, I used to be more focused on Chinese politics than American, but with Trump that has changed—it’s hard to focus completely on other parts of the world when this administration is in charge. That’s too bad.
More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time.
Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.
But a few days ago, I edged back into the danger zone, after my very first look of the just-named White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, on TV. Via the ever-perilous medium of Twitter, I observed that he seemed more at ease on camera than Sean Spicer ever had, and less committed to flat-Earth stonewalling denials than Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Maybe his smooth-schmoozy approach would be what the Trump team needed? Maybe the press should get ready to be handled by a pro?
Ooops. That looks wrong, too. Scaramucci’s half-hour live call-in to Chris Cuomo on CNN’s New Day this morning was unlike anything ever witnessed from other political “communicators,” and not in a good way. Among its charms is one David Graham quickly noted: Scaramucci’s off-hand reference to his relationship with Reince Priebus as being “like brothers” — as in “Cain and Abel.” I’m not quite sure which role—Cain as killer, or Abel as victim—Scaramucci thought looked better for him.
The whole thing, embedded below, is riveting, in a “Darwin Awards” or demolition-derby way. Congrats to Chris Cuomo for keeping his cool. I’d predict that your jaw will drop further, the longer you watch and listen—but that would violate my newly reinforced commitment to avoid any forecast whatsoever about Donald Trump and his team. Still, give it a look.
After these recent items about the Senate’s failure to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care law—installments #1 (drawing a parallel with 1960s-era Senator Clair Engle), #2 (when McCain voted yes on Tuesday night), and #3 (when he finally voted no)—several follow-ups:
On the Media
Two days ago I spoke with Bob Garfield of On the Media about the varied roles John McCain has played during his long career, leading up to this past week’s votes. As I said in the earlier pieces and on the air, McCain got to cast the “decisive” vote only because Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had been firm in their opposition to the bill, along with the 46 Democrats (some from states Trump had carried) and two independents who voted no. Still, McCain is the only former presidential nominee now in the Senate, with a long and colorful career, so his deliberation deserves its extra examination. I thought this segment was interesting, because of the way OTM produced it with lots of historical sound clips from McCain. See what you think.
Abraham Lincoln Brigade
In our interview Bob Garfield brings up some episodes of John McCain’s unconventional comments, including one involving Allahu Akbar. (I’ll let you listen to the tape to see the context.) Robert Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote to say that we missed the big story:
I listened with interest today as you discussed McCain’s somewhat unique persona. But his arguably most “interesting” comments are these—celebrating the Communist Delmer Berg who fought in Spain with the Lincoln Brigade. No possible political calculation of gain could have inspired this piece—unless he knew I would remember it. But then, I did not exist in his world, so I think we must chalk it up to sincerity. How strange.
It turns out that what he is referring to is a NYT op-ed last year by McCain, under the headline “Salute to a Communist.” McCain—as a Republican U.S. senator up at the time up for reelection—wrote of Berg and his comrades who had fought against Franco’s forces in the 1930s with the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade:
You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest. And even though men like Mr. Berg would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated—and rendered human dignity subservient to the state—I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.
I have felt that way since I was boy of 12, reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my father’s study. It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, became my favorite literary hero. In the novel, Jordan had begun to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who tried to suborn it.
But in the final scene of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for. And Jordan’s cause wasn’t a clash of ideologies any longer, but a noble sacrifice for love.
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan thinks as he waits to die, “and I hate very much to leave it.” But he did leave it. Willingly.
I mentioned in a dispatch yesterday that if more Republicans had realized John McCain would ultimately vote no and thus, with Collins and Murkowski, doom the bill whatever the rest of them did, they might have saved themselves an awkward yes by joining him on that side too.
That was imprecisely put. The real difference McCain might have made to his soon-up-for-election colleagues, for instance Dean Heller of Nevada or Jeff Flake of Arizona, would be if he had voted no on the “Motion to Proceed” on Tuesday. This would have spared anyone the need to vote up or down on the bill that Lindsey Graham called a “disaster”—just before he, and all the rest of his fellow Republicans except Collins, Murkowski, and McCain went ahead and voted for it anyway.
A law professor in the midwest writes in to clarify the point:
I think Flake and Heller knew how McCain would be voting on the skinny repeal at least an hour, probably several hours, before it took place, and had time to consider the politics of their own votes. My guess is that they felt their own political futures were better served by voting the party line. Since the repeal and replace failed by virtue of the three Republican votes against (and the united 48 Dems), they may have felt their aye votes would not count much against them in the 2018 generals. We will see.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the things that had gone as expected in the Trump era—namely, the character and conduct of the man himself—plus a roundup of parts of the civic fiber that were responding more healthily than one might have expected, under unusual stress.
Here are few other illustrations of what they call in the aeronautics world “positive dynamic stability”: That is, a system that pushes back against dangerous dislocations after being upset, and tries to return itself to normal.
The Boy Scout Jamboree is a huge event that happens only once every four years. Whoever is president is always invited to speak. After Donald Trump converted this year’s Jamboree into a backdrop for a wholly inappropriate partisan rally (as explained by Yoni Appelbaum), the head of Boy Scouts of America publicly apologized for what had happened and implicitly criticized Trump for what he had done:
I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent.
The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.
This past week a young Eagle Scout named Benjamin Pontz, now a sophomore at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, wrote an eloquent rebuttal in his hometown news site, Lancaster Online. For instance:
I am disappointed in the president for exploiting a captive audience of young people to engage in flagrant self-promotion and to widen the chasm of division that pollutes our politics. I am disappointed in attendees who applauded the president as he demeaned his predecessor Barack Obama (who, incidentally, was involved in scouting), his former opponent Hillary Clinton, and the media.
And I am disappointed in commenters on social media who posted horrifying side-by-side images and comparisons of the Jamboree and Hitler Youth rallies.
Each group—presented with a unique opportunity to celebrate values that should guide our nation—displayed an appalling lack of self-control.
Pontz went on to offer a quite good alternative speech—which by an overwhelming margin visitors to the site said they wish Trump had given instead.
After Trump told an audience of uniformed police officers on Long Island that he wished they would physically rough up suspects in their custody, some members of the immediate audience cheered and laughed. By the next day police units and organizations across the country were formally rebuking the president for what he said. An early, terse, and direct example was a Twitter statement from Ben Tobias, of the Gainesville, Florida, police:
Even the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, where Trump had spoken, quickly criticized what he had said.
After Trump decreed, via Twitter, that henceforth transgender people would not be able to serve in the military, the leaders responsible for actually running the military emphasized that normal rules, procedures, and standards would still apply. For instance, the next-day headline in Politico’s story was, “Pentagon takes no steps to enforce transgender ban.” The officers and civilian leaders who were quoted emphasized their adherence to established order for setting and changing policy, and the respect owed to their “brothers and sisters in uniform” who had chosen to serve.
Through Trump’s first six months in office, there were no signs that Republicans in Congress would consider anything he said or did to be a step too far. Many senators and representatives would express “concern”; almost none would back up the concern with votes.
The defeat of the health-repeal bill this past week is obviously a major step in the other direction, led by Republican Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain. On their returns home, Collins and Murkowski have apparently been greeted as heroes. (I haven’t seen these accounts regarding McCain, but he has been returning for medical treatment.) For instance, see this report by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald in Maine of Collins’s trip back to the state a few hours after the vote:
Friday morning, as she wearily walked off her plane at Bangor International Airport, Collins stepped out into a terminal gate packed with passengers waiting to board their outbound flight.
She recognized no one. But several of them recognized her and began to applaud.
Within seconds, the whole terminal was clapping, many people rising to their feet as their sleep-deprived senator passed.
Never before, throughout her two decades and 6,300 votes in the Senate, had Collins received such a spontaneous welcome home.
A story in the Washington Post quoted several Republican senators as saying that if Trump fired their ex-colleague Jeff Sessions from his role as attorney general, or Robert Mueller as special counsel, the GOP might move beyond “concern” to actually doing something. If it comes to that, we’ll see what actions match this talk, but even the changed talk is something.
Signs like these don’t solve the problem of our national government. But it is worth noting them, and encouraging more, as indicators that some parts of our formal and informal civic-society can still function.
* * *
On a less cheering note, four days ago the New York Times’ new columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece called “When the White House Lies About You,” about an unfounded and willfully distorted attack that White House officials had launched against him. Stephens is a conservative who was very tough on Trump before the election and has kept it up afterwards. His complaint was well justified, and it was a good column that addressed a real problem—although I could not help but recall an even nastier and more personal attack that Stephens himself, then a columnist for TheWall Street Journal, had made in early 2013. It was one of a series of criticisms he wrote of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who was then about to become Barack Obama's second-term secretary of defense, and this one claimed that Hagel was disqualified because he reeked of anti-Semitism. (Reeked? “The odor is especially ripe.”)
This was a charge that a prominent rabbi in Omaha called “extremely stupid” and that the former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald argued against in a column titled, “Impressive Omaha Jewish Support for Chuck Hagel.” Hagel’s time in the spotlight has come and gone, and in moving from the WSJ’s editorial page to the NYT’s Stephens is in a new role. I have to think that he would imagine the effects of such a column differently these days.
And as the object of baseless administration-driven criticism himself, he might even sympathize with someone he would usually oppose, the former Bill Clinton administration staffer and long-time Hillary Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal. As I’ve noted before, Sid Blumenthal and his wife Jackie have been personal friends of mine and of my wife for decades. His ongoing biography of Abraham Lincoln the politician, whose second volume has recently appeared (to mostly very favorable reviews), is grippingly and gracefully written, and tells me things I hadn’t known practically on every page.
But Blumenthal’s name has become a shorthand for what people don’t like about “the Clintons” or “crooked Hillary,” and this past week a U.S. senator unfortunately stooped to that game. Charles Grassley, a veteran Republican from Iowa, put out a statement that was a classic of “what-about-ism”—the tactic of answering a criticism of your own side with “well what about [some transgression]?” from your opponents. In this case Grassley reacted to questions about the multiple, undisputed foreign entanglements of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager, by saying: What about Sidney Blumenthal? Why all the hubbub about Manafort’s failure to register as a foreign agent—when Sidney Blumenthal didn’t register either? (If you think I’m exaggerating you can read Grassley’s statement for yourself.) As chance would have it, Fox News picked up the theme, with a story titled “Clinton confidant Blumenthal back under microscope amid Trump scrutiny.”
There are a lot of differences between the cases, but the simplest and most important one is this: Sidney Blumenthal was not a foreign agent. Love him or hate him, no one has produced any documents indicating that at any point he was ever in the pay of any foreign government, which is a clear contrast to Manafort. (Also: Donald Trump is in office and Hillary Clinton is not; Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager and Blumenthal had no official role; etc.)
I asked Sidney Blumenthal whether there was some aspect to this I wasn’t aware of—something that justified Sen. Grassley’s What about ..? pairing of his role with Manafort’s. For the record, this is his reply:
Senator Grassley’s statement is utterly baseless. I have never represented or taken money from any foreign government or foreign political party. To suggest otherwise is a flat-out lie. Senator Grassley has fabricated a completely false story to create a political distraction from the investigation into the intervention of an adversary foreign power in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. If he is relying on his memory it is faulty. If he is relying on his staff they are incompetent. If he is seeking to imitate Donald Trump he should instead think more of his responsibility in pursuing the truth.
On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.
A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.
(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)
These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:
Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.
It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.
Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.
To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.
From another reader, on the same theme:
Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk. Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.
President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.
The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.
The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.
The maximum in the other pictures is three, for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.
Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.
One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.
The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.
No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.
When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.
This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.
The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him. I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.
While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.
And just about finally for now:
Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.
Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.
And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.
Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:
I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.
There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.
“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.
His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.
More on the flags themselves:
It’s not just the Oval Office. Flags are popping up all over the White House. And our Embassies when The president visits. And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.
I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears. Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.
You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”
They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].
And with a slightly different spin:
Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.
The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.
Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?
But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:
While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.
In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.
This man used his name:
I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people
As did this woman:
Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.
And another woman with this aperçu:
At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.
These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.
The Oval never looked better Ralph.
Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.
Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:
I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.
To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.
I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.
Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.
There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.
Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”
A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:
‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:
I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.
He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.
As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.
Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.
To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.
* * *
‘Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:
Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES
On Friday morning I read the accounts of the Alabama debate wherein Strange [appointed incumbent “Big Luther” Strange, whom Trump was backing] accused Moore [the Bannon-favorite challenger, Judge Roy Moore] of proposing that Trump was being manipulated by McConnell.
I wondered that Moore did not respond that Trump the deal-maker was not being manipulated, but instead was consciously fulfilling a commitment to McConnell in pursuit of the Trump agenda. More could have said that Trump did so fully expecting Strange to lose anyway, and that he, Moore, even approved of that deal by the savvy President because, on the day after the election, Alabamians could be sure Trump would thank them for choosing Moore, the true Trumpian.
Or something like that.
But how validated I felt when on Friday night Trump did not even go through the motions of waiting for Tuesday. Instead already—at the very rally where he was “supporting” Strange— he semi-endorsed Moore, while claiming for himself credit that Strange was [getting as much support as he did]. Clearly, if Strange wins it will be because Trump is awesome—and if Strange loses it will be because Trump is awesome but couldn't carry *such* a feeble candidate across the finish-line.
Perhaps this will fit well in your next piece later this week when Trump responds to two glaring failures: the Alabama election and the final attempt to repeal Obamacare. All politicians hedge, but not all are able to *pre-hedge* like this one, are they? My supposition is that 'the great deal-maker' has never in his life before had an ally - or even a friend - with and for whom he makes a commitment. Hell, I guess I'd even add here a *wife*, recalling his history of infidelity and especially his boast that he's never heard Melania fart. A strange and very sad man.
* * *
America’s Original Sin
In my piece I said that even a president as divisive as Richard Nixon had tried to avoid explicitly inflaming racial tensions in his public statements. “Law and order” dog-whistles are a different matter. Along the way I said that the history of slavery was “America’s longest-standing injustice and wound.” A reader suggests this adjustment:
I would argue only one point, and it is that our nation's longest standing injustice is to the Native Americans. It is not only a point of chronology, but of an intentional and systematic destruction of the Native people. The systematic enslavement, import, breeding and trafficking of humans is no less egregious. But by killing off the First Nations, and inhumanely dealing with the remaining population, we have millions fewer disenfranchised to have to "deal with."
As a Scots American woman I understand fighting wars that aren't "one's own", tribal differences, cultural separation, social nuance, and political embarrassment. How Donald Trump manages to package it all into one weekend of human offense and carnage is a reflection of a deeply disturbed mind. That the party of old white men refuses to care for the welfare of their constituents boggles and deeply disturbs my mind.
* * *
‘Girl in the Well’
Twenty years ago, in my book Breaking the News, I wrote about the “girl in the well” media frenzy of the late 1980s. In Midland, Texas, a toddler who became (at the time) world-famous as Baby Jessica fell into a well. For several days the nascent cable-news industry focused round-the-clock attention on the drama of whether Baby Jessica could be saved. (She was.) For a wonderful and incredibly dark movie that presaged this drama, which itself presaged this era’s disaster-centric media coverage, check out Billy Wilder’s underappreciated 1951 classic, Ace in the Hole.
A reader applies girl-in-the-well logic to the current president:
I think you wrote about [Baby Jessica] in your book on the media. The current administration is so awful in so many ways that it would be boring if it weren’t so dangerous.
Hence, the escalation of outrageousness by the head of state. Trump is "the girl in the well" and he has to keep digging himself into the well to keep the attention on himself. The worse he is, the more coverage he gets. I don’t know if there’s a solution but I hope somehow something changes and soon.
* * *
Smith and Carlos
In my item I mentioned the world-famous raised-fist salute that American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both black, gave while being awarded their gold and bronze medals (respectively) for the 200-meter run. In the original version of the note, I said that an infuriated Avery Brundage, the conservative and very controversial head of the International Olympic organization (he had strongly opposed efforts to boycott Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, in Berlin), had stripped them of their medals. Track experts, especially an Olympic historian named Bill Mallon, say that’s not right: Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games but kept their medals.
A reader in New York suggests another correction:
I was pleased, although not happy, to read your essay. (I suppose the distinction between “pleased” and “happy” can, alas, join that which you identified between “surprised” and “shocked”.)
For all that, I do feel compelled to express a reservation about one detail in the essay. In describing Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s gesture in their podium demonstration, during the 1968 Olympics 200-m. medal ceremony, you state that,
“they raised their black-gloved fists in what was then known as a “Black Power” protest salute.”
Such raised-fist gestures were, of course, frequently described as “Black Power salutes”—and that often reflected the purpose of those who made the gesture. And if that were indeed what Smith and Carlos had intended, then that description would be fine.
But Smith and Carlos have written and said, clearly and emphatically, that they were not making a “black power” salute, but a human rights salute. (E.g., Tommie Smith, David Steele, Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, pp. 16-17 (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2007).) They were protesting a complex set of issues in athletics, and in politics and society beyond athletics. Racial injustices were absolutely a major element among those issues, but race was not the sole, or even predominant, focus of their protest that day.
Smith and Carlos have been clear about what they were doing, for almost 50 years, and proper respect to them requires that our descriptions of their actions accurately reflect their stated intent.
By the way, I have also seen video of interviews with both men, over the years, in which they address the accounts that state they were stripped of their medals. They have consistently said that no one took away their medals, and the medals remain in the possession of them or their families.
And, from another reader in California:
Your mention of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in your recent article about President Trump’s recklessness prompts me to write you to encourage you, if you are ever in San Jose, to visit the statue on the campus of San Jose State University commemorating their stand on the medal ceremony.
When I first came across the statue a few years ago I was taken aback by how emotional it made me feel. There was a sense of pride I never would have anticipated, arising in large part I suppose from having grown up in Santa Clara County, graduating from San Jose State University, and being a part of the CSU system, but more than that a sense of gratitude for their protest. You can stand on the statue with Carlos and Smith, if you wish, as Peter Norman’s spot is unoccupied, but if you do so you are physically dwarfed, appropriately, by Smith and Carlos.
It’s a reminder of how large their protest was and is in the public mind. Their moment, though, though calculated, was short, and it was so simple, but it has resonated so much for so many people since then. It’s a great reminder that we don’t have to try to do great things – we just have to remember to keep trying to do good things.
* * *
A Dissenting View
For completeness, this is a representative—yes, representative—sample of a dissenting note. Like 99 percent of notes with this tone, it came without the sender’s real name. From Russia? From someone aggrieved in the United States? I don’t know.
Subject: Fuck off
Damn you mother fucking feckless fuckers !
Trump was spot on in his remarks about these elitist arrogant bastards of the NFL!
If these fucking assholes wish to not honor the flag and the National Anthem of this country they can all go to hell and we will see that they get there!
Game Over! These over paid self absorbed son of a bitches make me sick! So .... get over it you lame brain leftist. The good people of this country have had enough !
THE DAME JO
No kidding: I would publish a better defense of Trump’s tweets if one had come in. But this is the kind of thing that arrives.
Minutes before posting, this more-polite version of a supportive argument for Trump came in:
I’m not a big fan of Trump but I do believe that these very well paid athletes who spurn the pledge of allegiance should think about where else they could be so well off . They are able to go to great schools with B averages and yet still chose to be disrespectful to a symbol that many people died for .
You work for the Atlantic which an old friend worked for . His only flaw was that he like to complain about our system because he was a devout marxist underneath it all . You seem to be on the same track which is probably why you also work for that rag . The republicans abolished slavery but I guess you never learned that at HARVARD .
The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.
By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takesby Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.
My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodramaby the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.
On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)
* * *
This is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:
Devil’s Bargain, a story about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump by my friend (and former Atlantic colleague) Joshua Green. It is fascinating, well-researched, and of lasting interest, despite Bannon’s ouster from the White House, because of his ongoing Breitbart- role.
Hillary Clinton’s own What Happened, as I argued 10 days ago, is much more interesting and edgy than the standard politician’s book. And while it places central responsibility for last year’s results on Hillary Clinton itself, it raises important questions about—and asks for similar introspection from—other participants, notably the “what about her emails?!?!” press.
Here are two more campaign-related books very much worth reading:
I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.
In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and the darkness.
Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies. In a famous episode, he gave her a backstage kiss before he went onto a TV show.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:
His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….
“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”
He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.
“It’s Pew Research,” I say.
Now he’s fuming.
His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.
The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:
That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.
Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.
She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.
Thanks Obama is a very different book from these other three, starting with its focus on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns rather than 2016. Litt was a 20-something precinct worker in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and eventually became part of his White House speechwriting staff. He had worked for The Onion before trying political speechwriting, and his specialty at the White House (in addition to some heavy-weather policy work) was Obama’s comedy riffs. Among these were Obama’s last few White House Correspondents Dinner appearances, including his celebrated “Luther, the Anger Translator” routine at the 2015 dinner.
The book is genuinely charming, and perceptive. You can get an idea of Litt’s tone from his very effective Fresh Air interview last week.
White House speechwriters, as a class, are—well, writers. This makes it the more noticeable that the collection of effective memoir-books by them is thinner than you would expect. Walter Shapiro, mentioned above, was a speechwriter during the Carter administration—as was I, and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, and the novelist Jerry Doolittle, and the newspaper editor Griffin Smith, and the now-Congressional candidate Bob Rackleff, and the newspaper reporter Achsah Nesmith, and others.
You could find a similar lineup for most administrations (until this one). But graceful, instructive, wry speechwriter memoirs like Litt’s are the exception rather than the norm. I think Thanks, Obama will join the ranks of lasting works about the culture and texture of political life, and of coming-of-age accounts by staffers who grow up personally and politically at the same time. (This is a category whose towering examples range from literary memoir-essays like The Education of Henry Adams, to romans-a-clef like All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, to serious policy-essays like A Political Education by Harry McPherson. Please read them all!)
Staff memoirs are easier to write, or at least more fun, if you’re describing a meltdown or race-to-the-bottom political disaster—as in John Podhoretz’s mordantly comic Hell of a Ride, about his experience with George H.W. Bush. (I don’t agree with Podhoretz on much, but this is a funny, interesting book.) When I wrote about the Carter administration long ago in this magazine, it was also with a “how did that happen?” tone.
Litt takes on a much higher degree of difficulty by being mainly positive and respectful of Obama and his achievements. But he avoids a pious or reverent tone by directing many of his comic talents at himself. He’s aiming for, and mainly achieves, a self-presentation as a barely-skirting-disaster naif who gradually learns what he is supposed to do. The hoary Hollywood joke is that once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy. The political counterpart involves being able to feign self-deprecation. It’s appealing in a speaker—one reason Donald Trump simply could not perform as a Correspondents Dinner-style after-dinner humorist is that self-deprecation is a necessary part of the schtick, but is wholly outside his range—and it’s appealing in an underling’s memoir like this.
Perhaps there are some people who, summoned to the Oval Office for the very first time, walk in there like it’s no big deal. Those people are sociopaths. For the rest of us, attending your first Oval Office meeting is like performing your own bris.
To make matters worse, when you have a meeting in the Oval Office, you don’t just go into the Oval Office. First you wait in a tiny, windowless chamber. It’s kind of like the waiting room in a doctor’s office, but instead of last year’s Marie Claire magazines they have priceless pieces of American art. And instead of a receptionist, there’s a man with a gun. And in a worst-case scenario, the man with a gun is legally required to kill you.
It turns out this little room is the perfect place to second- guess every life choice you have ever made… I was on the verge of losing it completely when one of the president’s personal aides emerged.
“Okay. He’s ready for you.”
To my credit, the first time I walked into the Oval Office, I did not black out. In front of me I could see a painting of the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell. Behind me, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Emancipation Proclamation. Not a photocopy or poster. The. Emancipation. Proclamation. I didn’t turn to look at the document, but I could feel the message it was sending through the room.
“I’m here because I freed the slaves,” it seemed to say. “What are you doing here?”
And, when it comes to the But Seriously Now part of the book, Litt says:
Eight years in Obamaworld taught me focus. Each news cycle—already shrunk to twenty-four hours when POTUS took office—lasted mere seconds by the time he left. He faced constant pressure to approach every issue with the frantic, hair- on- fire urgency of a tweet. More than once, I found myself frustrated by the president’s patience. To me it seemed more like delay. But nine times out of ten, Obama was right. The secret to solving big problems, I learned, is knowing which little problems to ignore.
The list of things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages. I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grownups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld. For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult….
I read the book cover-to-cover in one evening. Very well done.
* * *
It’s a dark time, with some positive notes. These are worth your attention.
The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.
I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.
But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.
His first tweet, at the top of this item, dramatized his inability to conceive of any event, glorious or tragic, in terms other than what it means about him. People are dying in Puerto Rico; they have lost their homes and farms; children and the elderly are in danger. And what he sees is, “nasty to Trump.”
That was followed by:
This is an outright attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whose passionate appeals for her citizens would evoke compassion and support from any normal person — and from other politicians would stimulate at least a public stance of sympathy. I can think of no other example of a president publicly demeaning American officials in the middle of coping with disaster. There were nasty “God’s punishment!” remarks about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but they did not come from the White House or George W. Bush.
They “want everything to be done for them.” It is impossible to tell whether this is a conscious racist dog-whistle by Trump—these people! always looking for a handout—or whether it is instinctive. Either way, it is something that no other modern president would have said in public, and that no one who understood the duties of the office could have done.
This has not happened before. It is not normal. It should not be acceptable. The United States is a big, resilient country, but a man like this can do severe damage to it and the world — and at the moment, he is leaving many Americans in mortal peril.
During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself—he is who he is, he can’t help it—but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way. Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.
As it happens, I wrote and published that preceding paragraph a week ago. The Republicans’ responsibility is all the graver now, and deepens by the day.
Two very useful assessments of Bob Woodward’s mega-best-selling Fear, officially published today, are this one by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, and this one by Andrew Prokop, in Vox. They both make one of the enduring points about Woodward’s long-running inside-Washington saga: how easy it is to guess at least some of the people who have talked with him.
Partly that is because these figures are presented with ongoing interior monologues: “Powell wondered: was Cheney pushing the WMD evidence too hard? Might they regret the step they were about to take? Was he being hung out to dry?” “Petraeus thought as he left the meeting, Maybe this time, at long last, Obama would finally act.” Or in the latest book, “Cohn realized, this could mean economic war. If only there were some way to head it off.” None of these is a real quote, but any of them could be.
Back in 1976, Art Levine published in The Washington Monthly a famous parody of how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of Richard Nixon’s resignation, in The Final Days, might have applied in the final days of Naziism. Only two books into the Woodward oeuvre, Levine highlighted the source-conscious tone. His piece began:
This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.
Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled.
Another clue is that these figures come off so much better in the books. Precisely because of the interior monologues, they’re more rounded, they’re more aware of the trade-offs in public choices, they’re conscience-stricken, they’re trying to do the right thing. Thus, as both Chotiner and Prokop point out, the figures who show up in Fear as struggling hardest to save the country from Trump rank high on the probably-talked-with-Woodward list. (Of course there must have been many others—including some whom Woodward could cannily have concealed by not given them the “Mattis was worried...” treatment.)
But there’s a second ongoing point about Woodward’s books, which is: no matter how he obtained them, Woodward’s anecdotes, allegations, and narratives have to a remarkable degree stood up.
This is a point acknowledged even by the very harshest overall assessment of Woodward’s books, Joan Didion’s essay back in the 1990s in the New York Review of Books. Specific parts of Woodward’s reportage have been challenged — including by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, who questioned an allegation concerning early-Obama-era economic policy. But over millions of words, and thousands of quotes and anecdotes, in 20-some books, the vast majority of what Woodward has reported has either stood unchallenged, or been acknowledged long after the fact as having been correct.
This is of course the very opposite of President Trump’s track record and reputation when it comes to verifiable fact. And even people who haven’t followed every twist and turn of Woodward’s journalistic output have probably been aware of him long enough, on the national scene—and over the past decade, as a more-conservative-than-liberal figure on cable news shows. This is why Trump’s “Woodward is a liar” campaign, while consistent with his standard response to any criticism in the press, seems unlikely to pay off.
There isn’t, and can’t be, any modern counterpart to the mainstream consciousness-of-the-nation role that Walter Cronkite played through the 1960s and 1970s, as anchor of the CBS Evening News. But Bob Woodward occupies at least a distant-cousin version of that information-world niche. He has been around forever; he has seen everything; he has a track record that has generally stood up; and he features a just-the-plain-facts / “that’s the way it is” retro affect.
Historians still argue over whether it really made any difference in mainstream support for the Vietnam War, when Walter Cronkite announced on his broadcast, after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, that he considered it a lost cause. (“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion…. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”) But it seemed at the time that it mattered.
Maybe historians will argue 50 years from now whether Bob Woodward’s catalogue of incompetence, madness, and deceit made any difference in reckoning with the gravity of our current governing emergency. Let us hope that those future historians will say that Americans with influence “did the best they could.”
Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.
(For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.
(Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon departed while still president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)
My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather, I was addressing two points:
First, that an initial line in some news accounts --that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.
Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.
Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:
I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].
In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.
The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army's endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.
I wouldn't argue that METARs are pretty accurate, but flying in Central America for fifteen months and [the mountain West] for the same, I've found BR and -RA can result in periods of zero visibility and to conduct the emergency procedure of Inadvertent IMC would be 100% not okay with POTUS or any VIP on board. Europe also is notorious for rotational aviation units to basically be grounded during NOV - MAR (which frustrates all the coordination for cross country clearances, airport logistics, etc.) mainly due to the fact that military helicopter pilots fly VFR.
I have no reason to defend this White House, and my voting record will show an entirely different political inclination than those currently in charge, but just wanted to ensure that we're giving the military pilots a fair shake, especially with a risk profile that one would have to take with VIPs. With all these variables not even including icing, I can really see why it would would be possible not to accept the risk of a VFR or even an IFR flight.
And similarly from another aviation-experienced reader:
I think Trump deserves every criticism and satire that has been heaped upon him — and more — for missing the ceremony. He could have gotten there somehow, if he really wanted to.
That being said, let me also observe (as a fellow pilot, and a CFI [Certified Flight Instructor]) that whenever a US president flies, especially overseas, I'm guessing there are additional airborne security measures in place (AWACS, fighter escort). Perhaps that was a factor.
Thanks to the readers for these points. Just to make it triply-clear: this is not at all about whatever judgment call the Marine One pilots, or other aviation authorities, might have made. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than the other way around.” When working for a president these officials have unique burdens and responsibilities.
But once more time, the point is: White House staffs anticipate these complications, and they make multiple fallback plans precisely because of the “what if?” possibilities.
Now, several responses in a different vein. First, from a reader on the West Coast:
I too was wondering about the mystery.
Then, I believe that my mother solved it. She said -- "Donald Trump did not attend the ceremony in the rain, because his hair would have fallen apart, and he would have looked terrible."
This explanation sounded ridiculous at first blush. But actually, when you think it through - it sounds plausible. I think this is likely the correct explanation of why he missed the event, and it has nothing to do with flying conditions.
His hair and image are the most important things to him, and a horrible photo of Donald Trump in the rain does far more damage to him than missing an event, with an excuse.
I almost feel bad for the guy. I imagine that his makeup (and as twitter noted on your feed, the hair) would look ridiculous in the rain. The president passionately does not want to look ridiculous. And the narrative that he was too preening to stand in the rain would be unacceptable.
The side by side comparisons to Obama, vigorous and impervious to rain would have been unbearable.
It's a terrible state of affairs. Not to engage in whataboutism, but I wonder if a female president would have more easily been afforded a hat?
I think we’re looking for answers for Trump’s no-show in all the wrong places, places that might seem reasonable or logical.
The vanity-focussed explanation is likely the best one; Trump was afraid of what would happen to his hair in the rain and the wind. It’s both reasonable and logical, considering his obsession with his ‘do’.
Imagine the photo ops? His ego would never have survived.
Maybe we’ll eventually know who made what decisions this past weekend. For now, thanks to the readers for weighing in.
A conversation with the evangelical pastor and theologian
Shortly after I met my wife, Cindy, in 1989—she was living in New York City at the time, while I was living in Northern Virginia—she told me about a new church she was attending in Manhattan: Redeemer Presbyterian. The young minister, she told me, was “the best pastor in America.”
His name was Timothy J. Keller.
Since that time Keller, 69, has become one of the most consequential figures in American Christianity. When he founded Redeemer in the fall of 1989, fewer than 100 people attended; in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Keller was preaching in multiple services in three different venues each Sunday to about 5,000 people—mostly young, single, professionally and ethnically diverse. He has written about two dozen books, several of them best sellers. And unlike that of many popular ministers, his reach extends farbeyond the Christian subculture.
Harry Reid may be the only person who can keep the Democrats from killing one another before selecting a nominee. But will he live long enough to do it?
LAS VEGAS—Swing past Caesars Palace; head up the Bellagio’s driveway, where its famous fountains are erupting to an auto-tuned Cher hit. Walk by the Dale Chihuly glass-flower ceiling above the check-in line, and the animatronic exhibit with the half-human, half-monkey figures. Head past the blackjack tables and the jangling slot machines and the chocolate fountain to the austere concrete corridors beyond them. There, getting wheeled around in a red metal-frame wheelchair is the 80-year-old man on whom the unity of the Democratic Party in 2020—if not the Democratic nomination—may hinge.
If he can stay alive that long.
Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 after representing Nevada for 30 years in the U.S. Senate—a dozen of them as chair of the Democratic caucus, eight of them as Senate majority leader—was supposed to be dead already; his pancreatic cancer was forecasted to prove fatal within weeks. But he’s still here, which is how I came to be talking with him, not long before Thanksgiving, in a conference room at the Bellagio, asking him why he remains the person to whom many of the Democratic presidential candidates come for advice and anointment.
It’s time to abandon the dogma that’s driven our foreign policy and led to so much disaster in the region.
President Donald Trump’s October decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria produced a rare moment of bipartisanship in foreign policy. With a shared sense of alarm, Republicans and Democrats alike accused Trump of betrayal.
Certainly, it was a betrayal of the Kurdish partners who bled for us in the fight against the Islamic State. It was also a betrayal of process—leaving our military leaders and diplomats struggling to keep up with tweets, our allies in the dark, our messaging all over the map, and chaos on the ground.
If all this episode engenders, however, is a bipartisan dip in the warm waters of self-righteous criticism, it will be a tragedy—or worse, a mistake. We have to come to grips with the deeper and more consequential betrayal of common sense—the notion that the only antidote to Trump’s fumbling attempts to disentangle the United States from the region is a retreat to the magical thinking that has animated so much of America’s moment in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.
I served as a career diplomat throughout most of this era, sharing in our successes as well as our failures. Despite important achievements, we all too often misread regional currents and mismatched ends and means. In our episodic missionary zeal, especially after the terrible jolt to our system on 9/11, we tended to overreach militarily and underinvest diplomatically. We let our ambitions outstrip the practical possibilities of a region where perfect is rarely on the menu, and second- and third-order consequences are rarely uplifting. The temptations of magical thinking, the persistent tendency to assume too much about our influence and too little about the obstacles in our path and the agency of other actors, led to indiscipline and disappointments—steadily diminishing the appetite of most Americans for Middle East adventures.
That leaves American policy at a crossroads. Our moment as the singular dominant outside player in the Middle East has faded, but we still have a solid hand to play. The key to playing it well will be neither restoration of the inflated ambition and over-militarization of much of the post-9/11 period nor sweeping disengagement. Instead, we need a significant shift in the terms of our engagement in the region—lowering our expectations for transformation, ending our habit of indulging the worst instincts of our partners and engaging in cosmic confrontation with state adversaries, finding a more focused and sustainable approach to counterterrorism, and putting more emphasis on diplomacy backed up by military leverage, instead of the other way around.
For some kids, the weekly trash pickup is a must-see spectacle. Parents, children, waste-management professionals, and experts on childhood all offer theories as to why.
For Ryan Rucker, a dad in Vacaville, California, the weekly summons comes on Wednesday mornings, usually around seven. For Rosanne Sweeting on Grand Bahama island, in the Bahamas, it’s twice a week—Mondays and Thursdays, anytime from 6 to 8:30 a.m.—and for Whitney Schlander in Scottsdale, Arizona, it’s every Tuesday morning at half-past seven.
At these times, the quiet of the morning is broken by the beep beep beeping of an approaching garbage truck—and broken further when their kids start hollering, begging to be escorted outside to wave or just watch in awe as the truck collects and majestically hauls away the household trash. Rucker’s daughter Raegan, 3, takes her stuffed animals outside with her to watch the pickup. Cassidy Sweeting, 4, enlists her mom’s help to deliver granola bars and water bottles to the three trash collectors. Finn Schlander, 3, invited the neighborhood garbage-truck driver to his birthday party. (Ultimately, he was unable to attend, but the party had garbage-truck decorations nonetheless.)
The fancy bike brand tried to depict a wellness journey. It didn’t go as planned.
The internet has some feedback on Peloton’s holiday ad campaign. The fitness-tech company, famous for its $2,400, Wi-Fi-enabled stationary bikes that let riders stream spin classes, debuted a new television commercial in mid-November, but it didn’t become infamous until earlier this week, when Twitter got ahold of it.
In the ad, a young mom gains confidence in the year after her husband buys her a Peloton for Christmas—or, at least, that’s what the ad seems to be aiming for. The commercial documents the woman (who is also documenting herself, via her phone’s front-facing camera) while she gets up early day after day to exercise or jumps on the bike after work. At the end, she presents the video of her exercise journey to her husband. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she tells him. “Thank you.”
MAGA nation should be outraged about President Trump’s personal attorney.
If the grassroots right wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., it can’t ignore the suspicious behavior of Rudy Giuliani. Here’s one red flag: Wealthy, powerful people tend to pay their lawyers top dollar. But as Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Giuliani works for free. In fact, an attorney representing Giuliani’s wife in divorce proceedings told the New York Post that he’s losing money. “Not only does he work for free, but all of his expenses every time he goes down to Washington, D.C., every time he travels for the president, it comes out of his own pocket,” the divorce attorney explained, “and he won’t say how much it’s costing him.”
Why has the former New York City mayor taken on a billionaire as a charity case? It’s not clear, and neither is the nature of the work he’s done relating to Ukraine, a subject of interest in the House impeachment inquiry. At times, Giuliani has described his Ukraine meddling as heroically public-spirited, declaring that “I’m not acting as a lawyer.” He once told a Fox News host, “I wasn’t operating on my own; I was operating at the request of the State Department.” Yet on a different occasion he said, “This isn’t foreign policy,” but help for “my client.”
It’s surprisingly common for men to start losing entire chromosomes from blood cells as they age.
In the 1960s, doctors counting the number of chromosomes in human white blood cells noticed a strange phenomenon. Frequently—and more frequently with age—the cells would be missing the Y chromosome. Over time, it became clear this came with consequences. Studies have linked loss of the Y chromosome in blood to cancer, heart disease, and other disorders.
Now a new study—the largest yet of this phenomenon—estimates that 20 percent of 205,011 men in a large genetic database called the UK Biobank have lost Y chromosomes from some detectable proportion of their blood. By age 70, 43.6 percent of men had the same issue. It’s unclear exactly why, but the authors think these losses might be the most glaring sign of something else going wrong inside the bodies of these men: They are allowing mutations of all kinds to accumulate, and these other mutations could be the underlying links to cancer and heart disease.
In its third season, the series is stuck in a relentlessly cheery mode that’s cloying to watch.
The great irony of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s television shows is that the dialogue gushes forth with the insistence of a burst hydrant, and yet the most beguiling moments are the ones in which no one speaks at all. Midway through the third season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a man and a woman whose chemistry has smoldered almost since the show’s inception find themselves alone, in the early hours of the morning, at a hotel. They gaze at each other. They each glance meaningfully through the open door toward a bed. They say nothing. The energy is so heightened and so loaded with expectation that I couldn’t have stopped watching if the room around me had suddenly caught on fire.
The five hours or so that preceded it, though, had mostly the opposite effect, where any scenes without Rachel Brosnahan’s unsinkable comic Midge Maisel—and even a few with her—were either inert or insufferable. What used to feel like Sherman-Palladino trademarks now come across as tics: the barrage of inane chatter; the superficial stereotyping; the overreliance on spectacle without substance, like a dinner composed entirely of cake pops. More vexing than anything, though, is how defiantly The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel refuses to have stakes. Everything plays out in the same major key. Everything—lost children, homelessness, divorce, social injustice—is just a joke, bedazzled and glib and gorgeous. This is a series so vacantly uplifting, it’s managed to transfigure Lenny Bruce into Prince Charming.
Vladimir Putin has a fondness for the Soviet era. So do many Russians—but often not for the same reasons.
SOCHI, Russia—Gazing up at the bust of Joseph Stalin, the young boy listened silently as his mother squatted next to him, whispering the Soviet dictator’s story into his ear. The pair studied the black-colored sculpture, among many of Stalin in this city’s history museum (just one, apparently, is not enough). “He built this city,” the mother told the child, who stared admiringly at Stalin’s signature moustache. “He was like a czar.”
To some extent, that is true. Though Russian intellectuals and poets had long found refuge in this Black Sea port, it was Stalin who ordered its development, turning it into a resort city. His vision was to create a Soviet Riviera, replete with grand botanical gardens and enormous, well-equipped hotels.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Television in 2019 offered up sweet birthday babies and hot priests; exposed nuclear cores and examined injustices; giant octopuses and the king of edible leaves, His Majesty the Spinach. It was a year in which more than 500 original scripted series were estimated to air—a new record signaling a television landscape that’s more abundant but also more fragmented than ever.
With that in mind, this year’s “best of” list, like last year’s, tries to recognize shows that did specific things particularly well. Some were brand new; some have already been canceled. But most of them came into being because someone took a chance on an odd idea, a risky concept, or a distinctive voice. As the streaming wars heat up, none of these series feels like a safe bet, which is precisely what makes them so worthwhile to watch.