May 30, 2017
The thing I’ve noticed during the past twenty years or so of my development into a mature old guy is the startling absence of any kind of institutional or historical memory by the American voting public. This may not be a new thing, as I was reminded last night watching again the still relevant 1976 movie ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and hearing Jason Robards (as Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post) tell Woodward and Bernstein in the picture’s final speech, ““Y’know the results of the latest Gallop Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit.”
I remember speaking and writing ad nauseam after Bush Jr was appointed President by his dad’s buddies on the Supreme Court that this would not end well, that I had researched just a little of Shrub’s history as a person and politician, read how he had failed to show up in Alabama to serve out his required duty in the National Guard, saw what serious damage he had done as Governor in Texas, learned how he had helped some friends screw the Curtis-Mathes Company out of the land they ended up using to build the new ball park for the Texas Rangers by buying the judge who condemned the land, and a dozen other giant red flags that told me whatever he had done in Texas he would do ten-fold for the country, simply out of ignorance, lack of curiosity, and inexperience. This was all information readily available to anyone, but all I heard from republican friends and family was “You’re just a Bush hater, Mark—he’s really a good guy.”
Fast forward 16 years. Same strokes, same folks, a different joke in the White House, arriving there under the same cloak of national dimwittedness and determined ignorance from the people who thought that even if the Orange Man-Child might be unqualified, at least the people around him would keep him from doing the damage that he is now inflicting on the world at an appalling rate.
Heather Digby Parton writes to this strangely American phenomenon, where no one seems willing or able to learn from history, and Americans who insist on qualified professionals in every other aspect of their lives from their own personal health care to their family’s financial well-being to who repairs their plumbing nevertheless come to the bizarre conclusion that a completely inexperienced known felon whose whole life is a record of personal unaccountability, financial failure and generally horrible treatment of nearly everyone he encounters—-THIS is the guy who should be given the keys to the Oval Office and entrusted with the nuclear codes. Because, apparently, the “adults” he appoints will act as some kind of check on his worst instincts.
Yeah, that always works out. So, some history. And a fairly bleak conclusion from Ms. Parton. Worth the read, it’s brief.
Donald Trump’s supposedly respectable advisers have become enablers to a regime of lies, incompetence and idiocy.
Back in January of 2001, after a protracted post-election legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court seating George W. Bush in a 5-4 partisan decision, the Beltway establishment was giddy that the jejeune Clinton administration was finally out of office and responsible adult leadership was back in town. The late conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne memorably put it this way on the eve of the inaugural:
“There’s a whole lot less Hollywood this weekend than there is Houston, and it’s not a boomer — baby boomer inaugural, despite the fact that George W. qualifies as a baby boomer. The grownups are back in charge.”
Whatever reservations Washington may have had about the incurious George W. Bush, they were soothed by the presence of the old Republican guard represented by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and others who reminded them of a time before Bill Clinton and his boomer buds roared into their “little village” and “wrecked the place.”
The president himself was a man who acted like a frat boy most of the time and could barely string a coherent sentence together. Recall just a few of the memorable quotes from the man who would soon be sitting in the Oval Office as these pundits were excitedly welcoming the adults back to Washington:
“I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.” — Nashua, N.H., Jan. 27, 2000
“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” — Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000
“We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.” — Houston, Sept. 6, 2000
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” — LaCrosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000
It was obvious that our new president’s antenna didn’t pick up all the channels, if you know what I mean. But the pundits didn’t care because it wasn’t important. The grand poobahs of the GOP establishment would make America great again.
We all know what happened: 9/11. Democrats rallied around the president and he shot up to a 90 percent approval rating and stayed between 60 and 70 percent for the better part of the next two years. This was when the grownups led the nation — first into a war in Afghanistan that has really never ended, and then into Iraq, making their longtime fever dream of an occupation come true.
Their agenda had little to do with the challenges of terrorism. These men of the past were fighting the last war — the Gulf War of 1991, which many of them believed had been mistakenly left unfinished. Indeed, even the untried son, Bush junior, openly proclaimed that he was proposing the war as an act of revenge for an earlier assassination attempt on his father, President George H.W. Bush. And many members of the administration had signed on years before to an American imperialist agenda, with an invasion of Iraq serving as the fulcrum for “benevolent global hegemony.”
It turned out that these éminence grises, these respectable men in suits and ties who were going to bring honor and dignity back to the White House, were radicals. And the man they were charged to instruct in the ways of Washington was more than willing to be just as radical as they were.
One would have thought Americans had learned their lesson after having lived through the disaster of the Bush years. But 16 years later the Republican Party served up another unqualified, ill-equipped nominee, and he too became president without winning the most votes. Once again the establishment tried to reassure the public that he would be held in check by the vice president and the respectable appointees: Gen. Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security and — after the first choice was fired — Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. Since the military is the only institution left in America that maintains even the slightest respect among the public, this seemed like a good idea. These men had commanded legions, surely they could control the likes of Donald Trump.
That’s not happening. The people who were supposed to help Trump become a responsible leader have instead followed their boss into his morass of lies, corruption and incompetence. As Tom Ricks (who encouraged these people to join the administration for the good of the country) points out in this piece for Politico, they have degraded their reputations without making the slightest improvement in Trump’s performance as a leader.
Defense Secretary Mattis embarrassed himself on “Face the Nation” on Sunday by bizarrely asserting that by appointing him, a big supporter of NATO, the president had endorsed the alliance. This came despite the fact that Trump behaved like an ill-mannered boor at the annual NATO meeting in Brussels and refused to publicly affirm the mutual defense imperative known as Article 5. Mattis claimed that it doesn’t matter what Trump said; we should be content that he deigned to attend the meeting at all.
The Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. Kelly, appeared on “Meet the Press” and blithely dismissed reports that President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had asked the Russian ambassador to use secure Russian embassy communications facilities for a covert channel to the Kremlin. Kelly said, “I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not-so-good friends, is a smart thing to do.” His reputation, already strained by his willingness to enact Trump’s draconian immigration agenda, is now no better than that of a partisan hack.
McMaster is the only one of the Trump “grownups” still in uniform. As Ricks points out, that means he is required to tell the truth and shun conduct unbecoming of his position. Ricks suggests that McMaster should feel compelled to resign rather than continue to spin Trump’s obviously inept behavior, believing now that these experienced hands are doing nothing more than enabling a president who will never listen to them.
The lesson in all this is that it is foolish to count on advisers and appointees to make up for what’s lacking in our leaders. These aides can be malevolent or ineffectual but either way, they can’t fix the fundamental problem of an unqualified president. The political establishment needs to stop assuming they can. The person sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office is the one who needs to be a “grownup.” It’s a basic requirement of the job.