President, Public, and Press: A Romance Gone

Harry Dart’s charming cartoon from 1911 conjures up a vision of the US president, public, and press bound together in a happy if inescapable relationship.  William Howard Taft was then president, and the nation’s falling into a star-struck frenzy as he fled Washington to spend a few weeks at a “summer White House” in New England supplied the theme for Dart’s cartoon.  Between 1909 and 1912, the 300-pound Taft and his wife Helen summered in the Massachusetts town of Beverly, generating headlines and intense local curiosity.  In making a resort community “the nation’s summer capital,” Taft was following long-established custom.  Presidents at least as far back as Buchanan and Van Buren had traded stifling conditions on the Potomac for the salubrious pleasures of a few weeks by the sea, in the hills, or at a fashionable watering hole.

No matter how “ordinary” the Tafts sought to be, their presence turned the starchy enclave of Beverly all circus-y.  Journalists and others clogged its byways to glimpse the President passing in his car or the First Lady patronizing the local shops.  According to the Boston Globe, “motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president’s cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.”  Gawkers paddled skiffs out into the harbor to inspect the grand presidential yacht, The Mayflower, a 273-foot vessel with a staff of 166 under eight officers.  Mrs Taft claimed that only by boarding the yacht and sailing up the coast could the president get a short interval of rest, “steaming away out of the reach of crowds.”

In fact, the pressure of the Tafts’ celebrity affronted Beverly’s carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity.  “Secret service men patrolled the grounds” around the president’s temporary residence, “trampling the flower beds and generally spoiling the serene summer atmosphere.”  Souvenir hunters snatched the prayer books the president had used while worshiping at the local Unitarian church.  All the while, Taft kept up with his official duties, visiting the executive offices set up for him at Pickering House when not indulging in his well-known passion for golf.

Yet the hoopla surrounding the president’s appearance spoke to the prestige of the presidency itself.  The comical aspects of the public’s love affair with the president are gently satirized in Dart’s cartoon, which imagines George Washington, the first president, similarly circumstanced at “the first Summer Capital” of Mount Vernon.  Messengers dart across the grounds, delivering urgent messages to an executive office set up in one of the plantation’s outbuildings, while on a veranda, man-servants tote trays of cold martinis.  Temporary quarters have been set up for the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and War on Mount Vernon’s front lawn, where Washington, dangling a tennis racket, ponders an urgent communique that has interrupted his game.

Radical dames crusading for the right to vote crowd around outside, bearing signs reading “Our Rights Are Paramount; Let Congress Wait” and “If We Don’t Get Our Rights This Year, We Will The Next” (which is funny because women’s perennial effort to gain the franchise had been going on for more than seventy years and would not culminate in success until 1920).  The president’s security detail is badly outnumbered, allowing groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and suppliants for pensions to breach the sanctity of the presidential compound.  The presidents’ friends lounge at a table in the shade, trading political intelligence and waiting to get away with G. W. for a round of golf.

Dart’s cartoon evokes nostalgia, because no American would think of drawing or publishing such a cartoon today.  Over the past decades, changes in the press, the public, and the presidency have made the gentle affection that infuses this cartoon a rarity.  The press, the public, and the president are no longer united in a virtuous dynamic of mutual dependence and trust.  Above all, President Trump’s meanness and talent for alienating others makes such a happy scene unthinkable.

 

Image: Harry Grant Dart, “Mount Vernon, The First Summer Capital,”
Puck, vol. 70, no. 1798, 16 August 1911,
from this source.

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Russia’s Patsy

What Americans know without further investigation is that their president is a fool.  President Trump is a laughingstock in the eyes of global sophisticates and rival nations.  His vanity and naiveté combine to keep him from realizing how ridiculous he is.

What we know about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is that Russians wanted to see if they could manipulate Trump and his people and found that they could.

Donald Trump is all the more a patsy if his protestations of innocence are true.  Given his vanity, he could well have failed to recognize how blatantly the Russians were playing his team.  He has yet to acknowledge the wrong he committed in surrounding himself with people willing to serve parochial or rival interests rather than those of the United States.  Whether Trump colluded with Putin’s hirelings has yet to be established, but, by leaving the nation open to a sort of embarrassment that amounts to a dangerous vulnerability, Donald T. Rump showed a gross incompetence that is incontrovertible.

What prompted Trump to select Michael Flynn, as his national security advisor?  Flynn was an embittered army general intent on getting even with the US by selling his services to dubious foreign clients.  Even after the acting head of the Justice Department warned Trump that the Russians could manipulate Flynn by threatening him with exposure, Trump postponed Flynn’s dismissal, leaving him in a highly privileged position for nearly a month.  Trump’s stubborn loyalty to a man who mattered far less than our security interests must have filled the Russian establishment with glee.  While the president ingenuously bragged to high-ranking Russians about the quality of American intel, their compatriots were probably busy hacking the NSA.

Which is worse: having a grandiose bumbler in the White House instead of a person who, as the Founders intended, represents the best of America; or knowing that the President is incapable of serving the nation in accordance with his oath?

Image: Screen shot of Russian officials laughing,
as Putin jokes at the Americans’ expense (May 2017).

The Five-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Shareholders

A color panoramic view of the US Capitol taken from the driveway circa 1898.
Donald Trump doesn’t know how to share power.  His companies are private and he has never had to be accountable to other stakeholders.  He would be terrible at running a public company.  Now he is the head of the federal government, where the key concepts are “limited powers” and inter-dependency.  Still he behaves as though he’s running the family hotel chain.  Displease the big boss and one’s head will roll.

The situation presents Congress with an unusual opportunity to reclaim its former status as a branch co-equal to the executive.  Trump’s style of administration suggests why the Framers did not go all in for an imperial presidency: to look to the present White House as a source of legislation and policy is sheer folly.  This president may be capable of reforming (that is streamlining) the executive branch, and he may learn how to defend and represent American interests ceremonially.  But, being reluctant to extend his trust to professional experts, his White House is not likely to become a font of innovative and workable legislative initiatives–which, after all, used to be Congress’s domain.

Once upon a time, the Senate was a center of intellectual excellence, where the chief leaders of the states spent endless hours in one another’s company.  It was a tight-knit group, often described as a club, where members knew one another thoroughly, and where they took a strange kind of pleasure in devising bills that would meet the conflicting demands of (wait for it) their constituencies.  The House, the Senate’s more rambunctious sibling, could not equal it in prestige and in certain periods was of such low quality that it could not sustain the interest of the press: quite different from the situation that prevails today.

What will Congress make of this opportunity?  This era could be remembered as one when one-hundred senators and 435 representatives restored Congress’s vitality, when their creative and constructive energies went into crafting workable and forward-looking legislation, and when their power vis-a-vis the presidency earned them the nation’s gratitude and admiration.   The fortunes of the nation would look less bleak if Congress’s full power to work for the good were being deployed.

Image: William Henry Jackson photograph of the Capital taken circa 1898
Published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1949
The Library of Congress

The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 32

Panoramic view of Washington City (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Dynamics:
Underneath the Trump presidency are a pair of fragmented and outmoded political parties, contributing to the public’s rightful perception that national politics are inchoate. The Trump presidency itself represents a vertiginous jolt, one that delights those who supported him even while it startles and alarms everyone else.  A nasty political struggle that will take the US in a new direction has begun.

The press:  It is a particularly difficult time for them.  Journalists, opinionators, and social-science experts have just been through an experience that established the limits of their influence and damaged their authority.  The vote showed how much of the nation is indifferent to their views.  A majority of the states are inclined to reject the intellectual establishment’s worldview and its prescriptions regarding what is good for the US.  The nation’s need for a vigilant, balanced, and discerning press remains urgent. Unfortunately, some previously reliable figures (e.g. David Brooks) are wild-eyed and near hysterical post-election.  Is the nation heading toward a Constitutional crisis?  Toward tyranny?  If so, we need journalists who are calm and can help the public focus constructively on matters susceptible to its influence.  The public can do nothing about Trump’s personality.  Move on.

Chinks in Trump’s armour (my sister’s approach):  What aspects of the political situation offer leverage for averting national shame and moving the nation in a positive direction?  Strangely enough, the present constellation of power, which pits an outsider against all officialdom, may give rise to more unity of purpose across party lines.  Trump has made a few sound cabinet picks and shown some willingness to delegate to them.  We need more people like Mattis and Tillerson to stay in the mix.

Image: Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west.
Drawn from nature by Edward Sachse. 1856.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

Donald Trump’s Win

A man making a flag, Bain collection (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s win was largely strategic.  He understood what states and voters he needed for a victory and he found them.  The mainstream media (which now has an acronym, MSM), though devoting an inordinate amount of air-time and column-inches to Trump’s campaign, seldom looked beyond its trashy surface to report on its nuts and bolts.  As a result, the public was largely unprepared when Trump pulled off a solid victory, securing well over the 270 electoral votes needed to become the next president of the United States.

An exceptional report that Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg prepared for Bloomberg Businessweek, however, documented the approach the Trump campaign employed.  Trump spent little on political ads and claimed not to believe in polling.  Instead he poured money ($100,000 a week) into private surveys and used the data to run election simulations.  In mid-October, though running badly behind, Trump’s team was focused on “13.5 million voters in 16 battleground states whom it consider[ed] persuadable.”  The campaign had prioritized the states—Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia—that were essential to Trump’s winning.  In addition, the campaign orchestrated its messaging to demoralize three key groups of likely Clinton voters—idealistic young people, African-Americans, and women—in hopes that they would not vote at all.

In the weeks before the election, the electoral map at Real Clear Politics showed a tightening race, with more and more states in the toss-up column.  On the eve of the election, Secretary Clinton’s lead consisted of just over 200 electoral votes that were considered certain; 170 electoral votes were in the toss-up column.  In the campaign’s final days, Trump visited New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada, realizing that wins in these states could compensate for losses in others.

On Election Night, the vote came in along the lines that the Trump campaign envisioned.  He secured victories in all the swing states he had prioritized, also winning in Michigan and Wisconsin, which Democrats had carried in every presidential election since 1992.  The final vote counts are still being arrived at, but recent reports state that Trump’s edge over Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin totaled just 112,000, a tiny number in an election in which an estimated 132 million votes were cast.

Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, but her support was not widely enough distributed.  While her campaign was wildly successful in some populous states, notably California (where millions more votes have yet to be counted), her support was soft throughout most of the country.  The strength of Clinton’s campaign was symbolic messaging: its tone was confident, inclusive, and comforting.  Yet the very constituencies her campaign was designed to appeal to didn’t turn out for her in sufficient numbers.  The Democratic vote in many urban areas declined, and African-Americans who turned out for Obama didn’t turn out for Clinton.  CNN has concluded that “While she won the key demographic groups her campaign targeted, she underperformed President Obama across the board, even among women, according to exit poll data.”

One wonders what the energetic crowds who are protesting the outcome of the election were doing during the seemingly interminable campaign: did they vote and campaign for Clinton?  What it will take for the Democratic establishment to shake off its complacency and recognize that, aside from President Obama’s star power, its operations have not been working so well?  After an election in which Donald Trump won 37 percent of the Latino vote, will Democrats come to grips with the fact that banking on identity politics is unwise?  Since the year 2000, the Democrats have suffered defeat in three presidential elections (Gore, Kerry, and now Clinton), while the GOP, though perennially wracked by internal divisions, has gradually increased its hold on state and federal power.

Image: “Flag making—man cutting out stars with machine”
from this source

Day 16: Revamping Presidential Selection

Up in the air, © 2016 Susan Barsy
How can the US improve on the way it selects a president?  What process could the nation use to move toward a system that is more efficient, less disruptive, and that produces presidents of the highest caliber?

Personally, I would be in favor moving away from our current system, which essentially abdicates most of the decision-making to extra-constitutional bodies, a. k. a. the political parties.   I would love to see a movement to increase our reliance on the electoral college.  That is, let political delegates selected at the state level get together in the electoral college, consider a range of their favored candidates, and vote until one attains the Constitutionally mandated number of votes.

Over the centuries, Americans have moved farther and farther away from the nation’s original method of presidential selection.  We have moved toward an ever greater reliance on the two major parties and on the results of direct votes in the primaries.  The results on the Democratic and Republican side this time around have hardly been satisfactory.  On the Republican side, the winner is a figure who has never held public office and will not command much influence with other national politicians.  On the Democratic side, we have a more seasoned candidate who might well have been supplanted were it not for the machinations of the national party committee, which makes direct voting seem like a sham.

If the states’ citizens delegated this power to electors, could they not perform the work well on the public’s behalf, perhaps producing a better and more efficacious result?

The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

Will the Electorate Destroy the Political Parties?

Artist's sketch shows men talking excitedly at an open-air polling place in NYC.

Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile.  On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party.  On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand.  Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.

We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really?  The parties, we are discovering, are impotent.  There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves.  If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.

Trump and Sanders are political bounders.  Who are their friends on the Hill?  How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency?  Who would their advisers be?

Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison.  Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary.  Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party.  In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.

And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America.  The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties.  Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong.  It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China.  It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans.  Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing.  Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.

It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside.  If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party.  Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.

Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes.  Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs.  In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed.  Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity.  Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.

RELATED:
Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump’ (NYT)

Image: from this source.

This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856.  The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls.  Boxes for the distribution of tickets.  Everybody busy.’  At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box.  The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.  Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.