Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

Advertisements

Minding Abe’s Sign

I stopped at the Lincoln Memorial,  my favorite national monument, on my visit to the National Mall early this morning.  It never fails to inspire me, and I stop there whenever I can for a few minutes of silent, awed contemplation of our greatest President.

This morning I was struck by the message on the sign placed near the Lincoln statue.  It’s probably unnecessary — I’ve never heard anything but hushed whispers in my prior visits — but I appreciated it nevertheless. 

Don’t you wish people took heed of the sign as they talked about, say, the 2016 presidential campaign?

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

America Then, America Now

IMG_3454

Yesterday morning in Washington, D.C., I walked past Ford’s Theater.  A small, quaint red brick building among the modern concrete structures of downtown Washington, the theater looks as it did 150 years ago, on that terrible night when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

It’sdownload wonderful that Ford’s Theate still exists; so much of American history has been erased in our never-ending quest for bigger and better that it’s gratifying to see a place that played such an important part in our history has been preserved.  So, too, has the house across the street where our greatest President died, and Edwin Stanton aptly said “Now he belongs to the ages.”

America being what it is, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that, among these sober living memorials to a dark chapter is a cheesy souvenir shop called Honest Abe Souvenir, which was having it’s grand opening as we walked by.  Because, after witnessing the place where American history took a grim turn and a great man breathed his last, who wouldn’t want to buy an Honest Abe mug or T-shirt?

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

Better Late Than Never

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at the commemoration of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle of the American Civil War had been fought months earlier.

On November 24, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union published a editorial that dismissed the President’s remarks as “silly.”  The editorial stated:  “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

150 years later, the newspaper — which is still around, now operating under the name Patriot-News — has retracted that scathing judgment about the Gettysburg Address.  Speculating that the writer of the earlier editorial may have been under the influence of partisanship or strong drink, the Patriot-News editorial board writes that its prior judgment was “so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”  The newspaper’s correction states:  “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

The Patriot & Union was not alone in questioning the value of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the days after it was spoken to the world.  Its extreme brevity in a day when important speeches often were hours long, and its conceptual approach, which linked the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence, looked forward rather than backward at the great battle, and declined to directly criticize the Confederacy by name, made it stand out as radically different.  Lincoln himself is said to have remarked, after the speech was over, that his remarks “won’t scour.”

Lincoln was wrong, of course, and so was the Harrisburg Patriot & Union in dismissing his profound remarks as “silly.”  To its credit, the newspaper has finally, a century and a half later, corrected its error.  Sometimes it just takes time to recognize what has truly happened and to appreciate its significance.  The heated passions and glib remarks of the day often seem silly when viewed with the cool judgment of history.

Don’t Mess With The Lincoln Memorial

In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?

But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry.  I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.

The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America.  Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period.  His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too.  Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us.  We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.

So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?

And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question:  how could the vandal do this and get away?  I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected.  Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.