About The Inaugural Address

At 11:30 today, Donald Trump will say the 35 words required by the United States Constitution — swearing on both the Bible used in Abraham  Lincoln’s inauguration and a Bible his mother gave Trump when he graduated from Sunday school in 1955 — and then, according to tradition, the new President will give an inaugural address.

I think the speech will be worth watching, or reading — not so much for what Mr. Trump says, but more for how he says it.

I think everyone would agree on one thing about Trump:  he’s not a conventional political speaker.  Most politicians employ speechwriters who draft carefully prepared remarks that are edited and polished to the nth degree and that strive to create memorable phrases that can be quoted by the press.  Trump doesn’t do that.  In the remarks I’ve seen him deliver, he doesn’t appear to follow a written speech, or even use a teleprompter.  Trump seems much more comfortable with Twitter, or with getting up to the podium with a few concepts in mind that he presents in a straightforward, conversational way, often repeating the same points several times during his remarks and mixing them in with observations about what he saw on TV last night or read in the paper that morning.

In the history of the United States, there have been a few memorable inaugural addresses and lots of totally forgettable ones — does anyone remember what Richard Nixon, for example, said in his first inaugural address? — but all of them have followed the pattern of a conventional political speech, where the newly sworn Chief Executive tries to inspire Americans with his vision for the country and present some enduring rhetoric.  Will Trump follow that pattern, or will he break from the mold in this instance as he has done so often in the past?

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump trying to deliver the kind of lengthy, formal, scripted address that we’ve seen at other presidential inaugurations.  I’ll be interested to see if he even tries, or if he decides to go in a different direction altogether.

The Vanishing President

I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone mention President Obama’s name in daily conversation.  Sure, you see news stories about him from time to time, giving a commencement speech here, issuing some new executive order or federal guidance there, but for the most part he’s just faded from the national zeitgeist.

obama-walking-away-rose-garden2It’s not a phenomenon unique to President Obama, of course.  When Presidents reach the last year of their second term, they always seem diminished, less important, and less vital.  They’re yesterday’s news, and they typically suffer by comparison to the energetic folks out on the campaign trail, all of whom are angling to take the President’s job.  No surprise there, either — the President is working, attending boring meetings and otherwise doing what Presidents must do, whereas the candidates are out jetting from place to place, giving speeches before cheering crowds.

It’s got to be a weird feeling, to be the focus of news coverage and attention and then suddenly . . . not.  You wonder if it’s hard for Presidents to deal with, that sense that they have been marginalized even though they are still in office.  Sure, they still have all of the trappings of Commander-in-Chief status, but they know, and everyone knows, that the country is in the process of moving on.  It’s like a high school romance that dims as the year progresses, until both parties recognize that they’re just playing out the string until summer comes and the calendar mercifully brings an end to it.

The fading phenomenon is particularly interesting this year, because President Obama reportedly is itching to take on Donald Trump.  If true, that might present a tough decision for the Clinton campaign.  The President can still give a mean speech, I’m sure, but he’s identified with the past — and if you’re out talking about change, as presidential candidates always do, the outgoing President is the living, breathing embodiment of what people want to change.  Perhaps that’s why, in my lifetime, outgoing Presidents really don’t seem to have been all that involved, or effective, in campaigning for their party’s chosen successor.  Will this year be any different?

Worst Of The Worst

Recently we were at a cocktail party when a group of us got into a discussion about a taboo cocktail party subject:  politics.  The debate was about one of those topics that just about every adult American, from the beginning of the Republic to now, has chatted about at some point — namely, who was the worst President in their lifetime.

Our friend The Activist staked out a bold position; she says it was George W. Bush, hands down, and she later sent me a link to a New York Times piece that made the argument that he was even worse than Richard Nixon.  It’s a somewhat familiar argument — sure, Nixon was a duplicitous crook, but he was a foreign policy wizard who has some “historic achievements” like opening relations with China, whereas in the writer’s view (and The Activist’s as well) Bush was a colossal disaster from beginning to end.  I’m a bit skeptical of the argument, and not just because I think no one could be worse than a President who lied, covered up, broke the law, abused his office in countless ways, and ultimately resigned in disgrace.  I also note that the article was written in 2007, while Bush was still in office, and I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have any kind of perspective on a President until years, and more likely decades, after his term has ended and the long-term consequences of his actions become clear.

I think it’s still too soon for anyone to objectively assess George W. Bush.  It’s interesting that, almost eight years later, he still provokes such disdain that intelligent, well-meaning people would passionately argue that he was worse than Dick Nixon.  I suspect that, some years from now, historians will treat him more kindly., whereas Nixon will remain at the rancid bottom of the barrel

I also wonder:  if we’re talking about awful Presidents, where does Jimmy Carter rank?  I would never argue that he was worse than Richard Nixon, of course, but anyone who lived through Carter’s one term will recall the terrible and pervasive feeling that the country was lost, somehow, and there really wasn’t a captain at the helm.  The economy was stagnant and wracked by ever-growing inflation and high interest rates and high unemployment, on the international front the Iranian hostage crisis made it seem like the United States was a powerless colossus, and Carter’s decision to retreat to Camp David to ruminate about the national soul rather than show leadership in the face of adversity left the country baffled.

At the end of Carter’s presidency, the United States seemed pretty hopeless.  Even at the worst moments of George W. Bush’s presidency, I never caught the same whiff of desperation that existed in the last year Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office.

The Champs And The Chief

The reigning college football champions visited the White House today, and President Obama made the Ohio State Buckeyes feel welcome and appreciated.  We may not agree with the President on all things, but he did a good job of spotlighting the defining qualities of this team of stalwarts:  they were a resilient bunch who didn’t back down after some initial adversity and showed true character in winning an improbable championship.

Kish wonders why Presidents spend their valuable time visiting with sports champions and similar cultural figures.  I don’t.  America is about a lot more than politicians and business leaders.  Our sports and sports heroes help to define us and illustrate many of the traits that we think have helped to make our country great — traits like competitiveness, grit, and drive, and a refusal to quit when the going gets tough.  The Buckeyes deserved a little recognition from the nation’s Chief Executive for their unforgettable season, and kudos to President Obama for deftly handling that small but nevertheless important task.

Getting The Dear Leader’s Haircut

There are conflicting reports from North Korea about whether men have been ordered to get a haircut that matches the styling of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. Some websites are reporting the story as the truth; others are saying it’s a hoax.

Either way, the story is getting a lot of play — primarily because the Dear Leader’s haircut is so distinctive. The hair on the sides of the head, around and above the ears, is shaved down to the bare scalp. Then, some kind of industrial lubricant is liberally applied to the hairs on top of the head to give them a deep sheen and allow them to be combed straight back and parted in the middle. The awkward result looks something like a wet plastic mat covering part of a cue ball. It’s a look you’d expect to see in a prison or a mental institution.

The “required haircut” story has legs because it’s plausible — North Korea’s conduct is so unpredictable that people will believe just about any news story emanating from that country — and because it’s outlandish even by North Korean standards. Could Kim Jong-Un actually be so besotted with the state-created cult of personality about him that he thinks his haircut looks good? Would a country that starves and enslaves its people go so far as to dictate an item of personal choice like a haircut, and force its unfortunate citizens to get an unflattering one at that?

We’re lucky we live in a free country where our leaders don’t insist that we adopt their hairstyles. I’ve now lived through the terms of 11 different Presidents, which would mean a lot of hairstyle changes — especially since I’ve stuck to pretty much the same style for the past 30 years or so. And some of our presidential coiffures weren’t exactly trend-setting, either. I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt the Ronald Reagan Brylcreem pompadour or the Richard Nixon straight comb back — although either of those would be preferable to Kim Jong-Un’s institutional trim job.

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.

In Thrall To The Administrative State

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who appears frequently on cable TV news shows, has an thought-provoking article in the Washington Post that captures some of my concerns about the incessant growth of the administrative agencies of the federal government and what it means for American citizens.  It’s an important issue that is well worth pondering.

In my view, there are two key points that should be part of our thinking about this issue.  One is laziness, and the other is accountability.

Part of the reason why the administrative agencies have grown so vast is that the President and the Congress have been, and continue to be, lazy.  (And, just so no one thinks this is an attack on the current President and Congress, let me be clear — this is something that has occurred, without significant interruption, since the 1960s, under Presidents of both parties and Congresses controlled by both parties.)  Presidents and members of Congress don’t want to roll up their sleeves and grapple with the details of how a particular federal law should be implemented or applied, so they write legislation in broad strokes and then yield huge amounts of discretionary authority to the administrative agency that is charged with writing the specific rules and then supervising enforcement of the law.

The justification for that approach is that administrative agencies are “subject matter experts” that can make finely honed decisions about how the law should be applied, what forms should be submitted, what fees should be charged, and what punishments should be imposed in the event of non-compliance.  That justification sounds good — but what makes us believe that the agencies really have such expertise, or that they exercise it in a dispassionate, apolitical way?  And, even more fundamentally, why shouldn’t we demand that Congress develop such subject-matter expertise?  Before Congress writes a law that may have an enormous impact on a particular segment of the economy, is it so unreasonable to expect that the members of Congress on the committee that writes the legislation actually have some reasonably detailed understanding of what they are doing?  I would be happy to see members of Congress spend less time on fundraising and cable TV appearances and more time on actually mastering the details.

IMG_1112The accountability issue is equally important.  Well-educated, reasonably attentive Americans know the names of the President, the leaders of Congress, their Representatives and Senators, and the major members of the Cabinet.  But who, at any given point in time, can name the head of the IRS or the FDA or the FTC?  When an issue arises with an agency like the IRS and not only the President, but also the leadership of the IRS, take the position that they had no idea what was being done, we have reached a critical point of non-accountability.  That kind of shrug of responsibility is not acceptable, because in a representative government our elected officials must know, and be accountable for, the actions of the agencies they are charged with supervising.  If they don’t, we must demand that they develop some mechanism to keep track of, and direct, the regulatory actions.  Part of that mechanism has to involve shrinking the bureaucracies and removing some of their power and discretion — because obviously it is easier to supervise and direct a smaller agency with rigidly defined authority than a sprawling entity that is given broad, poorly defined authority.

If we don’t get the growth of the regulatory state under control, we may move into a truly Orwellian scenario, where citizens can be trapped in a bureaucratic maze with no hope and no recourse.  If the President and members of Congress are viewed as powerless to do anything about it, we may see still further erosion in the number of Americans who care enough to vote in elections.  I don’t think you have to be a Constitutionalist — or for that matter a Democrat or Republican — to conclude that we don’t want, and cannot tolerate, that kind of government.