As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.
1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:
I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.
You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported. Absolutely a reality show.
All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.
The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member. These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about. But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.
Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.
2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:
Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."
I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.
Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.
For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?
I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.
And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.
3) Actually, there is a strategy. From another reader:
He does want to get reelected. His strategy with Kim Jong Un is to serve that purpose and that one alone.
He's gonna say "Vote for me or Kim is gonna nuke us if the Democrats win the White House" and he alone has cultivated a relationship with the deranged dictator and he and he alone can prevent war. That's why he walked into N. Korea without asking for anything from Kim. He plans on scaring the voters by nuclear holocaust if he isn't reelected.
I'm as obsessed with this surreal nightmare of a presidency as anyone else and am surprised to not have seen this take anywhere.
4) Looking deeper. This last note of the day begins with a point that members of the press have discussed at great length, ever since Donald Trump got in the race. That is whether there is any point in “medicalizing” a discussion of his traits. The reader’s message:
Your reader in “There is No Understanding Donald Trump” is right. It’s a show for shows sake. But there’s more. And it runs deeper.
When our president was elected, I contacted the smartest person I know (novelist) to explain the man. Easy, he said: go to the DSM (the volume that describes mental illnesses) and look up narcissist.
I did. And everything since has made absolute sense - a sense that runs deeper than the reality show metaphor, which could be construed as simply self-aggrandizing. We're in a lot worse shape than that.
The thing that puzzles and infuriates me is how the press continues to cover things in their commonsensical way (as your reader suggests). It drives me crazy to see dozens and dozens of reporters covering this administration. Why? What on earth for? As your reader has suggested, that just plays to The Show.
Given that the record is, in fact, important, I've suggested to friends in the media that one pool camera should follow this man around, and everyone just share the feed. Those who are thus liberated from covering The Show can now investigate his taxes, finances, relationships with Russia, etc. much better use of resources.
But please, stop asking intelligent questions. They have no relevance to someone who is so deeply mentally ill.
On the opening theme of this note, about mental status, let me give the two-point summary of the very long discussion nearly every member of the press has gone through in the Trump era.
Point one: It’s perilous, and in any case pointless, to attempt “diagnosis at a distance,” and attempt to give medical names and conditions to traits the public can observe. It’s perilous for obvious reasons, and it’s pointless because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. Supporter or critic, everyone knows what Donald Trump is like.
And point two: As a description of widely observed behaviors, it’s fair to note how closely what Trump does matches the standard checklists of narcissist traits. (One such list, from the Mayo Clinic, is here. Its first marker is that narcissists “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance; Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.”) But, again, observing this pattern gets us only so far, since nothing Trump does should surprise anyone any more.
The action-point, in the end of this reader’s note, is worth serious consideration by the press—and is related to note Number One. That is, the press should spend less time on the daily spectacle of Trump himself, and more on the actions and effects of the administration as a whole.
5) Update: In Trump’s Defense. Yesterday’s item has apparently circulated among Trump-supporting groups, as I have received a large number of messages like the one I am quoting below.
I explicitly don’t intend to host an online equivalent of a cable-TV panel show, with one person saying “Trump is terrible!” and then someone else snapping back, “No, he’s great! You’re the one who’s terrible.”
But as a one-time-for-now sample of the opposing line of reasoning, I quote parts of the message below. The sender identifies herself as a PhD. I assume she is sending this from a phone, and I’m quoting it as-is (rather than going through to spell out what she obviously meant as abbreviations) not to undermine its credibility but just for labor-saving on my end, and because the sender’s intentions are clear.
Here are selections from what she sent in, representing views I am hearing from many others:
It is so true tht persons do not ‘get’ T
Even psychologists, the greatly left leaning bastion these days, has its collective hair standg straight up as it gasps w exasperatn
Then there is the pathetic psychiatrist who pursues the idea tht T’s mentl hlth is an issue
Poor souls to hav nevr known a person to b so bold, pragmatic, & steadfast in wht he wants to do
T is a very modern character, a person for the times: totally atuned to digital media, totally comfortable & brazen, CANDID, in the limelight, speakg extemporaneously to any of the persons who besiege him to talk – AND – greatly abl to tolerate the humongous slop & ill treatmt he receivs as is proven in his non-stop pursuit of gettg thgs done in his job – a job tht he sees as the ultimate test for a ‘stabl genius’
He uses his mktg & TV experience, speakg hx, etc to totally great effect & he has truly remarkabl energy
Wait: T is breakg all the rules of how thing shud b done! Stop it, stop it
T is clear, concise, & keeps his eye on the ball.
How lame r ‘reportrs’ when they cry tht T has not made Kim giv up nukes, eg, –
Oh yeah, - magic – he meets Kim, K givs up nukes & the NK prob is ‘solvd’
But T is playg the long(er) game & his events w Kim happn to b huge steps in somethg requirg ever so many many steps, tests, time & ea step helps
As T himself has statd, he has common sense.
T is flexibl to the extent tht he will not hold a doctrinaire point of view & will change course as events, info, perceptn, dictate
T knows his mind & wht he wants to achiev & he keeps his eye on the ball, many balls, which we wud all c if the press wud report all the thgs he is doing every day
He wants ppl to lov, respect & admire him precisely thru showg them wht he can do for them & the country
The press is so-o-o mean in its grievous underreportg, misreportg, & UNreportg of the many things he is doing everyday & it is reponsibl for fomentg & magnifyg citizen animosity…
Hey, tht’s wht T is: remarkabl
Contrary to the writr whose words u relay, T IS a thinkg person - & a deep person (he prefers to no ‘go there’ in all likelihd as he does not wear his private sentimt (abt thgs like livg, dyig, meang, etc) on his sleeve
It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?
Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.
Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.
His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.
This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:
I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.
Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.
At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.
That’s when it hit me: he’s running a reality tv show out of the Whitehouse. Every day is a new episode, and every single move is designed to get better Nielsen ratings, improve the brand, or whatever it is that drives that peculiar form of celebrity. Mostly he’s feeding the monster that is 24/7 cable news.
Think about it this way: you’ve spent your life as a journalist, traveling, flying, writing, running, thinking about how sausages and laws are made. You view the world, your daily routine, even your own self … through that lens. If by some glitch in the matrix you found yourself Commander in Chief then that is the lens by which you’d view your new job. Everything you’ve done before would impact your schedule, your routine, and how you view the world.
More importantly, your serious effort over many years to think long and hard, to write out your thoughts, to bring wisdom and facts to the observations you share, even the reasons you share, how you pick what is a priority for the next issue … all those things would have an impact on the way in which you’d present your public face, your presidential face. In turn, people covering your administration would figure out the above almost immediately and do what they do accordingly.
Trump is a guy who has known only a very narrow slice of the world (NY real estate), has never been curious, or thoughtful, and certainly never cared about the ideals of good government, nor the welfare of others. For decades he has mixed his person with his public persona to the point of reaching some warped public media brand that eventually landed him on a fake tv show about how he runs the fake parts of his mostly fake company. And then one day, through a glitch in the matrix, he woke up the President of these United States.
So he put on a show. Some people liked it. He’s worked every day to get those ratings up. He blows his top when they have a bad day—not because a little kid dies in a camp, not because something doesn’t get out of a committee, not because of anything substantive being analyzed by reporters—no, he’s mad because of the bad optics, because someone upstaged him in an interview, because someone coughed while he was talking.
America has elected a carnival barker with absolutely no clue about history, government, the machinations of global finance, nor even GOP politics. There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no underlying wisdom or thought with each step. There’s today’s show, a manic struggle to find new content, cliff hangers, figuring out who gets killed off next. Our economy, foreign policy, place on the world stage, is based on tv production values, or some formula.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it and suddenly everything makes sense.
PS have you ever seen the riff by John Mulaney making the case that Trump is like a horse loose in a hospital? This is so good (jump to 7:20).
Today the reader followed up:
Since I sent my email it feels as though this theme has really taken off. Maybe it’s like shopping for a car and *suddenly* you see the same make and model everywhere you look!
This may be political journalism’s version of quantum uncertainty: The greatest challenge in understanding “What’s going on?” may be recognizing that no understanding is possible. And that’s a cue for me to end with a mention of George W. S. Trow’s memorable and prescient “Within the Context of No-Context,” published when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Thanks to the reader for weighing in.
Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:
Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?
I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience. But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”
That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.
Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.
Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?
Pence is as well-positioned as anyone in America to understand the nuances of what was going on. He spent six terms in the House. As vice president, he now serves as president of the Senate. Obviously he is second-in-command to Trump. He must have had a substantive and emotional reaction to everything he heard. He must have recognized what Nancy Pelosi did, when she immediately brushed back Trump’s condescending suggestion that she was worried about her own support with a steely reminder of the constitutional prerogatives of the Congress.
And yet he did not speak a word—and at least as far as one could judge on TV, he controlled his face, torso, hands, and other instruments of body language so completely as to seem utterly without affect. Almost taxidermied. The bearing that guards practice before duty outside Buckingham Palace appears to have been his goal—which he attained. The photo below could have been taken at any moment of the session:
Was it any different if you were there? Did he betray any reaction of any sort, no matter how fleeting or small? If he did, that would be interesting. And if he didn’t, that is also significant and impressive in its way.
There’s one more body-language aspect, for which first-hand experience is not necessary. It’s the attempt of Republican representatives and senators to wave away what TV viewers had just seen.
For instance, this evening on the PBS News Hour, GOP Representative Doug Collins, of Georgia, danced around Judy Woodruff’s repeated attempts to get him to say whether he agreed with Trump’s pledge to shut down the government if he didn’t get full funding for “the wall.” Collins also acted as if he had not heard Trump’s impassioned claim to Schumer that “I will be proud to shut down the government for border security” and “I will take the mantle. I’m not going to blame you [the Democrats] for it.” (See the claim here.) Like Mitch McConnell and some of his GOP colleagues, Collins has transmuted this to a “bargaining point” for Trump, about which the Democrats had to “come to the table.”
If I were a Republican legislator, I would say exactly the same thing. Collins handled the interview very well (as did Woodruff). He was trying to steer the whole discussion back toward the realm of political feasibility, from whose shores it had drifted very far this afternoon.
I imagine this will be the last installment in the “weather flying with Marine One” series. Two previous entries here and here. (On the other hand, who knows that the incoming email inbox will hold.)
A person who has worked at the company that makes the current Marine One helicopter, aka VH-1, has this to say:
On your recent piece addressing the ability of the Presidential VH-1 to fly in bad weather. I would like to add some observations that my experience of nearly 10 years at Sikorsky Aircraft (the maker of the helicopter in question) allows me to contribute.
I was [a high-level official involved in] many “systems” for Sikorsky aircraft. I can’t say for certain (I lacked the necessary clearance for such information) which block upgrades the VH-1 received over the years, but what I can say is that aircraft from the VH-1 squadron were a constant presence at the Stratford factory for maintenance and system upgrades.
Generally speaking modern Sikorsky aircraft (which no doubt would includes the VH-1) will integrate:
RIPS – Rotor Icing Protection System, which is a system of heating elements and conductive wire brushes which warms the rotating blades and prevents freezing;
TAWS – Terrain Avoidance Warning System, which as you might guess is an integrated radar system which warns of terrain variations;
RIG approach - Rig approach landing systems, which are autonomous landing systems for dangerous landings primarily on oil rigs that obviously could be used in other types of dangerous landings; and
Windshield Wipers; in case anyone doubted it, yes helicopter pilots have wipers at their disposable for visibility.
In short, when I read that the aircraft could not fly in the wet, fall weather in France, I was stunned.
No one would buy a medium lift helicopter for tens of millions of dollars if it could not be flown in inclement weather. In fact, one of Sikorsky's best medium lift class markets is the oil rigs in the North Sea, which is among the most inhospitable operating environments on earth and requires rotor-wing aircraft that can fly in all types of weather.
More than most, Mr Trump, who has flown Sikorsky aircraft for years, should know his press office is uttering easily disprovable falsehoods in suggesting the aircraft was the cause of his absence from Armistice Day ceremonies.
While it was professional of you to withhold conjecture on the real cause, my suspicion was bruised feelings and the apprehension of appearing marginalized was at the core of the decision.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re‑creating Berlin’s city government.
Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
The president is stuck in a vicious downward spiral.
We are in the Götterdämmerung now, the final phase of the Trump era. We began with the axis of adults that imperfectly constrained him. We then entered the age of hubris and action during which he systematically rid himself of the adults and was free to follow his whims. The third phase was the reckoning as he began to bump up against the contradictions of his own approach, on China and Iran in particular. Now we have finally arrived at the long-feared crisis and unraveling.
For three chaotic years, Donald Trump muddled through, at least in the eyes of Republicans, buoyed by the strong economy he inherited from his predecessor and powered forward by the long GOP wish list, which included, among many items, judicial appointments, deregulation, and the undoing of the Iran nuclear deal. Virtually every consequential and sympathetic analysis of the Trump administration, though, included a caveat: A serious crisis would upend any Republican progress and test the ill-equipped and vindictive president. Deep down, we all hoped the country would get lucky and slip through these four years without a paradigm-changing incident. But if luck is earned, we had no right to it.
The president’s photo op outside St. John’s Church was emblematic of his appeal to the religious right.
He wielded the Bible like a foreign object, awkwardly adjusting his grip as though trying to get comfortable. He examined its cover. He held it up over his right shoulder like a crossing guard presenting a stop sign. He did not open it.
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.
“It’s a Bible,” the president replied.
Even by the standards of Donald Trump’s religious photo ops, the dissonance was striking. Moments earlier, he had stood in the Rose Garden and threatened to unleash the military on unruly protesters. He used terms such as anarchy and domestic terror, and vowed to “dominate the streets.” To clear the way for his planned post-speech trip to St. John’s Church, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
On who looters are, what they want, and why some protests are more likely to include them
For many Americans watching the country erupt in protests, the looting is the rub. Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the United States to denounce institutional racism and police violence after a Minneapolis man named George Floyd died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But the breaking of windows, burning of property, and stealing of goods that has accompanied peaceful demonstrations make somepeople hesitant to throw their full support behind the protesters.
As the nation convulsed, the White House went dark.
Last night, as protests convulsed Washington, D.C., the White House went dark. All the lights were off. The windows of the president’s official residence were darkened, and the floodlights outside extinguished.
The country is sick, angry, and divided, but it also finds itself leaderless. Trump has never shown any inclination or ability to soothe or console in moments of crisis. He wants the trappings of power, like showing up for a rocket launch, but he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty with the work of governing. And he continues to view himself as the president only of the minority who voted for him, not all Americans. These tendencies have converged in this moment.
Yesterday, when America needed real leadership, the office of the president stood dark—and vacant.
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.
It happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.
On May 19, 1896, TheNew York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.
Another racial text—published by the nation’s premier social-science organization, the American Economic Association, and classified by the historian Evelynn Hammonds as “one of the most influential documents in social science at the turn of the 20th century”—elicited more shock in 1896.
The nationwide protests against police killings have been called un-American by critics, but rebellion has always been used to defend liberty.
Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. When our Founding Fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call. Phrases such as “Live free or die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” echoed throughout the nation, and continue today. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend liberty, because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their Negroes.”
Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy. Today, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike have erupted across the country in response to police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet the language used to refer to protesters has included looters, thugs, and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others.
Six weeks ago, Ahmaud Arbery went out and never came home. Gregory and Travis McMichael, who saw Arbery running through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Georgia, and who told authorities they thought he was a burglary suspect, armed themselves, pursued Arbery, and then shot him dead.