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.

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.