If you’re trying to get a fix on where you are, take a look at where you’ve been. As the sign says at the National Archives in Washington DC, “What’s Past is Prologue.”
So, to get some perspective, I took a look at our Presidents in the post World War II Era and tried to come up with a one-word description. Here’s what I came up with:
TRUMAN (gutsy); EISENHOWER (steady); KENNEDY (elegant); JOHNSON (powerful); NIXON (paranoid); FORD (okay); CARTER (godly); REAGAN (affable); BUSH I (earnest); CLINTON (clever); BUSH II (oblivious); OBAMA (decent). Special thanks to my friend Sam Miller for giving me the word oblivious for GWB.
I’m sure everybody has their own one-word description for their favorite and not so favorite past Presidents. For Reagan, some might think the word “affable” is a bit dismissive. Not so. His affability enabled him to be as effective as he was.
For Kennedy, “elegant” doesn’t just mean he looked good, but that once he got the first six months out of the way, it describes his way of governing (especially the Cuban Missile Crisis), and his relationship with the country.
For Clinton, “clever” is not a compliment … his best-known quote … “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Last, Johnson. Maybe if I had three words, I’d say, “powerful and tragic.” The Vietnam War broke him, because he didn’t have the intellectual confidence to question the Ivy League advisors he inherited.
Looking at that twelve President list, is there a clue that tells us that Trump is the obvious next person in the progression? Maybe. Although, it would probably take a trained astrologer to tell us.
Is it possible to make a prediction as to what is likely to be the one word that will describe Trump? To do so now would be to assume that the job does not have the potential to change the person who holds it.
One could make an argument that a person his age doesn’t change. But you could make a counter-argument that a person of his age would look at the Presidency as a last, best chance at true nobility and rise to the occasion.
Other ways to get a fix on where we’re at is to measure Trump and the people he brings in against concepts and attributes that have stood the test of time. For instance:
Honesty. Ben Franklin kept it simple: Honesty is the best policy. Scripture tells us, “The truth will set you free.”
Humility. Humility and high public office sound like they are pretty much mutually exclusive. Not so with the best, like Washington and Lincoln. A bit of humility makes self-effacing humor come naturally. Nothing is more endearing for a person in high office than the ability to have a laugh at his own expense. Lincoln was a master. When someone accused him of being two-faced, his response was … “If I was two-faced, do you think I’d be using this one?” Also, Scripture tells us the price we pay when we lack humility … “Pride goeth before the fall.”
Wisdom. We overvalue intelligence and undervalue wisdom. Intelligent people can tell you how to design weaponry to defeat an adversary in war. A wise person will arm appropriately and find a way to make the war unnecessary. So-called intelligent people want to crush opponents. Wise people recognize that humiliation is an enormous motivator. Humiliate a people, and you will be destined to fight them again.
Equanimity. Someone with equanimity has serenity. They are secure and not easily rattled … the opposite of paranoid. Eisenhower had equanimity in spades. That’s why he was picked to oversee the Normandy Invasion. He could deal with pressure and complexity and manage the egos of his generals and the Allies. Reagan and Obama were strong here also. Paranoia and the storing up of prior slights was Nixon’s undoing. He acted like everyone was out to get him, eventually he was right.
Looking at the qualities and attributes that successful Presidents have had, it’s clear that Trump is going into the job with serious personal challenges. He’s going to have to up his game.
Ian Bremmer is a fellow that has a good fix on big picture events. He runs a company called Eurasia. They consult with deep-pocketed companies on international risk. I saw him interviewed on Charlie Rose a few days ago.
He saw three risks to a Trump presidency: Incompetence; Dishonesty; and Authoritarianism. Bremmer thought that the government can continue to function at least at a minimally acceptable level in the face of incompetence and/or dishonesty.
Creeping and excessive authoritarianism, however, is a horse of a different color. That could get dangerous. We were there with Nixon. Planning break-ins and illegal activity in the office of the Attorney General.
It got very close to getting ugly. The press stepped up. Especially Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. A couple of people on the Hill made a difference: Senator Ervin of North Carolina, Reps. Barbara Jordan of Texas and Larry Hogan of Maryland.
If things go south in a big way with Trump and he starts to overreach and becomes excessively authoritarian, who’s going to step up?
It's time for everybody to be an activist.
I will post again on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 or before if the news flow dictates.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.