Rewriting Tragedy

I get frustrated easily. It’s a flaw I keep trying to work on, but it’s been a lifelong battle. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for anger, but there are also many “small stuff” things that you’re not supposed to sweat so much. Those include slights and conflicts far in the past that can’t be altered now, but that continue to generate grudges. Add to that the trivial day-to-day things that I take too seriously, and can do very little to alleviate, like the bumbling of my incompetent sports teams, and the inevitable stupidity of politicians. These feelings are silly, self-destructive, useless … unless you happen to be a writer.

Writers can make use of everything. We have our best fun re-imagining things that went sour and turning them into something quite the opposite. Almost anything can be rewritten to give it a satisfactory resolution. A sports fan like me can transform disappointments into triumphs like magic. I can make my team win, even if their real-life performance fell short. Baseball is my favorite sport, not only because of the athleticism and skill it requires to play at a high level, but because each individual game is full of mini-dramas and seemingly little things that can turn a result around. Games lost in this way are no tragedy for a fan, but sometimes a capricious turn of events can shadow an individual career forever after.

As a Washington Nationals fan, I’ve never quite recovered from the “tragedy” of Drew Storen, the one-time closer who “should” have salted away a victory in the National League divisional playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He would have done so, if he had gotten the benefit of the doubt on two borderline pitches that could have been called third strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5. After failing to get the calls, he went on to lose the game, and the Nats lost the series in a year when they were arguably the best team in baseball, all primed to win a championship. The shadow of that loss seemed to stay with Storen, and history repeated itself eerily in another divisional series two years later. I’m convinced his whole career, at least in DC, would have taken a different course if he hadn’t been “cheated” in 2012 by an umpire who inexplicably narrowed his strike zone at the end of the game. As it is, Storen became a something of a punching bag, a symbol of failure in local sports lore. He was cut loose from the Nationals, and has been mostly wandering around in the wilderness ever since. The Nationals lost two more divisional series after his departure, and some of us still find a way to blame him, as if the stench of failure he left behind still hangs over us.

That sports tragedy is nothing compared to that perpetrated by (and on) Bill Buckner, who played for five Major League teams from 1969 to 1990, won a batting title in 1980, was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981, yet continues to be a national joke owing to a single fielding error he made while playing for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, he picked the worst possible time to commit that outrage. According to Wikipedia, Buckner is “best remembered for a ground ball fielding error in the tenth inning that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, a play that has since become prominently entrenched in American baseball lore. Buckner’s error epitomized the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ of Red Sox fans, and he soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base.”

Overall in his career, Buckner was a reliable contact hitter and wasn’t prone to making fielding errors. The importance of his mistake was exaggerated; it did not, in fact, cost the Red Sox the World Series that year, although many fans believe to this day that it did. Buckner’s chronic ankle problems might have hindered him in getting to the ball in question, and the fast runner who had hit it might have beaten it out anyway. Untimely injuries, and opponents who happen to be a little luckier or better at a given time, are frequent hazards in baseball. It should also be noted that the Red Sox went on to blow a lead in game 7 of that World Series, so there should have been enough blame to spread around.

Buckner didn’t last much longer in Boston, as the fans continued to act ugly in 1987 although he was playing well. He and his family were harassed with death threats, and the news media was making too much hay from the incident to let it go. It took years for the fans and Buckner himself to develop some perspective on it. When he returned to Boston’s Fenway Park as a free agent near the end of his career, most fans seemed ready to “forgive” him. After his playing days ended, he involved himself in several businesses, did some coaching, and made television appearances in which he willingly remained the butt of that eternal joke. It seems that one fluky error defines him more than a respectable major league career spanning 22 years.

Baseball fans are particularly prone to heartache, since there are so many close-call losses. Sometimes the loss is so gut-wrenching, a matter of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory at the last second, that it seems impossible to move on. We declare that this is the worst defeat ever, that we’ll never recover, that we must shun our favorite players until they rouse themselves and give us a reason to watch again. Luckily, unless the fan in question is the kind of nut case who spews death threats, perspective tends to return by the next day. That’s fortunate, since it gives us time to prepare for the next heartbreak that is no doubt just around the corner.

So why do I stick with something that causes so much “pain”? Well, the wins can be euphoric, and the losses can be rewritten. I attempted something like this in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, in which the long-awaited championship run of the local baseball team parallels the blossoming lives and loves of the fraternal twin sisters whose fortunes are entwined with the team’s.

How I wish political realities could be rewritten as easily. The results of the 2016 US presidential election are difficult to put into perspective as yet. Rewriting the results seems next to impossible while we’re still experiencing the tumultuous aftermath, and have no way of knowing how much stranger it might get in the next two years. But as the lies and outrages multiply daily, some form of escape seems necessary. I long to see a work of fiction that portrays a Trump-like figure and his abhorrent enablers finally plummeting to the humiliating defeat that they so richly deserve. In fact, I’m half inclined to give it a try.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

I was perturbed when the American Library Association announced its intention to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The purpose of this action, according to one source, is “to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.”

As far as I know, no one has as yet proposed banning the books themselves from elementary school curriculums. Still, this could prove to be a slippery slope. At the very least, it casts a shadow on these autobiographical novels that gave me endless pleasure as a child, and that I still admire. When it comes to protecting people’s sensitivities at the expense of free speech, I tend to come down on the side of free speech.

It has been pointed out that the third book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, contains the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Obviously, that is an ugly, bigoted statement, but it must be put in context. The remark was made by a new neighbor of the Ingalls family after their move to Kansas, and Laura’s Pa took exception to it. Laura, although still a little girl in this part of the series, was afraid of Indians but also curious. On some level, she sensed the Indians’ anger at having their territory invaded was justifiable. When she asked her parents about it, she was usually shut down quickly. There was no question that Laura’s Ma hated Indians and said so, but Pa had a more nuanced view. Throughout the series, Laura always seemed much closer temperamentally to her father than to her mother. In a later book, Ma made a face as she recalled the smell of the skunk skins that some of the Indians wore. Pa continued to insist that there was much to be learned from the native tribes: “They know things that we don’t know.”

Our understanding of history requires an honest discussion of these issues. We must try to comprehend how pioneers who ventured into what was once designated “Indian territory” actually felt about the challenges they faced. It is not terribly useful for us, in our superior enlightenment, to declare how we think they should have felt. True, it would be useful to know more about this era from the Native American point of view, but that is a whole different story.

Unquestionably, Laura and her family felt a real threat from Indians. Some encounters were friendly, and some were not. They knew they were taking a risk by moving to Kansas when the Federal government opened it up to non-Indian settlers. The fertile land was too tempting for all kinds of pioneers … farmers, hunters, and cowboys … to pass up. Later, the government reversed that decision, but in the meantime, tensions built dangerously between the old and new inhabitants. Laura described the noisy powwows, punctuated by ear-piercing war cries, that often kept her family up all night as the local tribe debated what to do about the invaders. The most dramatic moment in Little House on the Prairie occurs when a French-speaking Osage chief, Soldat du Chene, arrives on the scene by horseback. He persuades his followers, in the nick of time, not to attack the white settlers.

Excessive political correctness in our day and age is as dangerous in its way as Trumpism. Those of us who oppose this vile president, a shameless enabler of racists and neo-Nazis, only play into his hands when we refuse to understand the different context of racial clashes in times past. It is dangerous enough to demand absolute purity of thought in the present; it is futile to demand it from our ancestors.

The “Little House” books provide testimonials of how people handled cultural clashes when they were a life and death matter. A long-running television series, also called Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) provided a more soft-pedaled version, far less jolting to modern sensibilities but far less accurate as well. I would still recommend the books, trusting that most readers would understand that perceptions have changed since the 1870s, and would be able to handle any discomfort that might cause. When I first read these books as a fourth grader, I was capable of understanding that. Why do we think present-day readers, even young ones, must be protected from history?

Scaling The Border Wall Of Publishing

 

If you consider yourself a writer, you must have experienced a few breakthrough moments. Once in a while there are magical times, hard to come by but worth all the previous struggle, when the words begin to flow and a previously thick stew of ideas coheres into a real story. In years past, that euphoria never lasted long because it was next to impossible to take it any farther. That fleeting sense of accomplishment was inevitably followed by the hopeless feeling of running up against a border wall. Patrols were stationed there to keep you from entering the promised land where your stories might take root and flourish. Obtaining a passport to gain entry into that realm wasn’t totally impossible, but there were dozens of hoops to jump through, and endless waits for the decision-makers to pronounce you worthy.

Then a revolution of sorts arrived on the scene. The self-publishing industry rose up, almost overnight, to blow down that barrier as if it were the Bastille. How liberating was that? We could say good riddance to those endless rules of proper storytelling that applied to newbies like us, but that established authors ignored with impunity. No more waiting six months to hear an agent or publisher say “not for us,” if they bothered to reply at all. No more of their arrogant demands, like the right to view our pieces exclusively so that we wouldn’t waste their precious time, when they had no regrets at all about wasting ours. No more spending years revising one story to suit numerous “expert” and often contradictory specifications, years that could have been filled with countless other stories and boundless creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, none of us has to take no for an answer without knowing why. Even if every agent on earth declares, “I can’t sell it,” that no longer has to be the final word. If we believe in our own work, we can sell it ourselves. Once I’ve given my best effort to my own manuscript, I can put professional editors, proofreaders, and graphic designers on the job. A hired team works to make it as professional as it can be without stomping on my original vision. There are plenty of books out there that are not particularly commercial, and certainly not destined to be best-sellers, but that are good enough for me.

Those would include my own four self-published novels. If I were to pick up one of them and skim it as if it had been written by somebody else, I would at least be tempted to buy it. It would speak to me on numerous levels. No industry expert can convince me that the first paragraph has to grab me with blood and gore. Slow but steady character development is what I like. The most liberating part of this revolution is the ability to produce the kind of writing that interests me. I might be in the minority when it comes to literary taste, but I can’t be the only reader in the world who likes chick-lit minus the predictable, happily-ever-after endings. I must be able to believe it myself. My favorite heroines aren’t all that different from me.

Back in the old days, some experts advised aspiring authors to concentrate on popular genres where the markets were relatively receptive. They mentioned children’s stories and science fiction as possibilities. Certainly those genres have popular appeal, but I was never able to get a spark of an idea from them. My stories tend to take a political or sexual turn, which is hardly ideal for children.  Science fiction presents too many plausibility issues. My real interest is writing about the struggles of more-or-less ordinary women who will never be Wonder Woman, or even the first female president of the US, but who can nevertheless triumph in their own journeys.

These days it looks like we’ve blown down the border wall by sheer numbers, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of us will prosper on the other side. It’s our job to cultivate the promised land, not overcrowd it with junk and take up resources without contributing enough. Who knows how long it will take us to feel like full citizens of that rich country? A satisfying life can only be built one day at a time. It’s our job to spread our seeds, cultivate them, and then wait patiently for the desert to bloom.

If Trump Were A Novelist

Sometimes when the daily news gets too grim for me, I play a trick on myself. I pretend it’s all part of a serialized narrative concocted by the news media for my entertainment. I’m not suggesting it’s “false news.” I’m just using my imagination to pretend it’s less serious than it really is. With this technique I can imagine that the president isn’t necessarily the pathological liar and delusional idiot he appears to be, but more of a creative genius who has fashioned a unique presidential character, barely believable but endlessly amusing.

Such creativity, if that’s what it is, makes me jealous. I’ve written two novels, Secretarial Wars and Let’s Play Ball, in which lousy presidents play a part, but this Trump creation blows them both away. My presidents were morally challenged manipulators, but I never envisioned what we appear to have now, a full-blown Fascist who not only aspires to be a dictator, but seems to believe he already is one. How is this possible in America, with its 230-year-old constitution? It’s got to be a fantasy, right?

This raises the question of whether Trump is aware of his own creativity. His lying is so constant and shameless that it seems to be a reflex action. Does he realize that most of what he spouts is garbage, or is he able to convince himself, at least in the moment, that he’s speaking the truth? Does he really believe he got a great deal with North Korea, or that he makes our NATO allies and trading partners respect us with his empty bluster? Has he convinced himself he actually cares about struggling people? Does he see himself as the caped crusader who saved the country from the Islamic threat posed by Barack Obama? Or that he has the power to make inconvenient statements and actions from his past go away, no matter how well documented they are?

This running show will continue as long as his political base holds strong and continues to lap it all up. That percentage of the electorate sometimes scarily approaches, or even exceeds, forty percent. As long as these folks believe everything their hero says, he can say and do anything. A strong contingent within the base reportedly believes, quite literally, that Obama is the anti-Christ. That would seem to imply that Trump himself is Christ, or a Christ-like figure, despite his demonstrated inability to name a single Bible verse or to identify a communion wafer when he saw one. His most powerful enablers, including the bulk of Congressional Republicans, will stand by and watch this show continue to unfold without interfering with it, as long as it continues to benefit their interests. Now and then a few betray some discomfort with the sham, but not enough to stop it.

The one thing Trump can’t do, if he is to preserve his heroic narrative, is to lose his bid for reelection. If this appears possible in the final days of the 2020 campaign, he’ll at least make noises about tearing up the constitution, always an obstacle to achieving his full greatness, and canceling the election. Polls seem to indicate his base would be more than fine with this. Or if he goes through with the election and loses, he’ll declare it false news and demand that the results be thrown out, which would make his base ecstatic. Thus, in one blow, he will rewrite both history and reality.

If I’d been asleep for over two years and had just awoken to the daily news, I’d think comedians had taken over traditional outlets. It’s the perfect setup for a satirical political comedy with a catchy logline: an adversarial country sabotages our electoral process and installs their own choice as president, an ignorant buffoon who makes us the laughing stock of the world. He’s a brilliant caricature, worthy of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. His own glorification is all that matters. If it could be passed off as comedy, his Nazi-like speeches to his most ardent supporters would be less scary and more like performance art.

Trump reaches new heights of comic genius when he accuses others of what he’s guilty of himself, thus deflecting attention from his own actions. All of his opponents are crooks and liars, and the investigations surrounding his associates are witch hunts. Most recently, he turned the tables brilliantly when he accused Obama of being a patsy for Russia. He went on to declare, with a straight face, that the Russians are bent on helping Democrats win the 2018 mid-terms. The question remains: Is this man crazy? Or is he just ribbing us all, with the twinkle of a gifted comic in his eye?

Weak Eulogies

A close friend of mine, a warm and lovely girl whom I first knew during our college days in the early 1970s, committed suicide in 2004. She was one of the most level-headed people I knew in college, someone I could count on for sensible advice. She did the act in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. During her spring break from teaching at a small-town college, she drove from her home to a reservoir and set herself on fire. Passing motorists spotted the flames and called the police.

A few days later, two brief newspaper articles about the incident appeared, one in the town where she was teaching, and the other in her original hometown. One of the articles listed her many accomplishments: master’s degree in teaching and doctorate in education; college professor for twelve years; founder and first dean of the graduate program; chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee; Sunday school teacher and ordained deacon at her church; aunt to seven nieces and nephews. The other article was much more terse, sticking to the facts. A police officer explained, “Apparently the victim drove to a remote place, dumped a can of gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.” The woman was described as someone with a history of mental problems who was seeing a caseworker.

Nothing about the girl I knew would have led me to believe that that she was capable of such an act. In college she was a political rebel in a small way, a Young Republican in a sea of Democrats. That put her in the minority, but it hardly made her a freak. As an educator, she expressed opposition to the “no child left behind” system that was in force during much of her career. But again, that hardly made her a unique crusader. If her self-immolation was supposed to make a political point or some other big impression, it failed spectacularly.

Her family set up an online memorial to celebrate her life and call attention to the scourge of suicide. Sadly, her former students barely responded. Probably the consensus was that she let them down. At the point around mid-semester when she left them, many must have felt abandoned as they tried to finish theses or prepare for graduation and subsequent job searches. Not that she intended to hurt them, but the few eulogies I read struck me as weak.

Why, then, did she do it, and why did she choose that method? I’m aware there are often hereditary components to depression. She told me once about a grandfather of hers, a Presbyterian minister, who succumbed to the disease. In view of that, her return to the church relatively late in life seem a little ominous. There had been a previous breakdown three years before, requiring hospitalization. That might have created obstacles to purchasing a firearm.

I can tell from my blog-reading that many people are dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as more clearly diagnosed conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, yet no one has to suffer alone. Many full and productive lives are being lived in spite of, or maybe even because of, these issues. The compassion for others that tough times can produce is in itself a worthy life skill.

Self-destructive behavior among writers is a fairly common phenomenon. For example, the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became acquainted in 1958, while auditing a course in poetry writing at Boston University. Both had attempted suicide in the past, and would succeed in the future. After class, they often went out for martinis with another poet, George Starbuck, who was rumored to be having an affair with Sexton. Their conversations reportedly centered around their flirtations with death, and the restrictions imposed by marriage, especially on women. Plath was married to the British poet Ted Hughes, a more accomplished writer than she was at that time. Plath did not yet have children, but intended to. Sexton, four years older, represented what Plath wanted to be … a successful poet who was also raising a family.

When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton wrote a poem eulogizing her friend. Later, she flippantly called the act “a good career move.” True, Plath’s bitter end eventually stimulated interest in The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel about her first suicide attempt, but she wasn’t around to enjoy it. The novel trashed the very people who had done the most to help her through that crisis. Her children benefited financially from her posthumous success, but they didn’t have their mother. In fact, her act exposed them to a “wicked stepmother” figure, the woman Hughes had been seeing and who sparked the rage that was evident in Plath’s final poems. That woman eventually committed suicide as well, taking her young child with her. Sexton herself followed in 1974, as if determined to duplicate that “good career move.”

Plath didn’t aspire to become a poster child for depressive writers, but that was how it turned out. When she was at her happiest, as when she first met Ted Hughes while studying at Cambridge University, she declared her intention to become a joyous, life-affirming writer. Within weeks, she determined to marry him and transform him into her vision of the best man he could be. In a letter to her mother, she declared, “ … having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long. I shall praise the lord and the crooked creatures he has made. My life shall be a constant finding of new ways and words in which to do this … my whole life will be a saying of poems and a loving of people and giving of my best fiber to them.”

If her desperate act was a good career move, it was a terrible life move. It darkens and stains every eulogy she inspires. The same can be said for Sexton, whose daughters, far from remembering her lovingly, accused her of abusing them. Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, a noted marine biologist, killed himself in 2009. Suicide does not enhance a legacy, or enrich someone’s story. It is as destructive to those left behind as to the perpetrator.

Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Character In The White House

Nothing about current times is normal. Something has gone wildly askew in American political life. We elected the worst possible candidate for President in 2016, a man whose asinine behavior and utter lack of knowledge about government should have disqualified him long before he got near the Oval Office. Those of us who expected to be saved by an outbreak of sanity in the lead-up to that election were sadly mistaken. He was an insanely, almost comically bad choice then, and his behavior in office, if anything, has been even worse. Most likely we will be paying the price for many years to come, but one thing we must not do is to accept this state of affairs as the new normal.

Fortunately, we have history to fall back on. There has never been an era of true tranquility in American political life, but most of our presidents have appreciated the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The American Presidency has been filled with a fascinating mixture of extraordinary men, troubled personalities, and some rather ordinary intellects. Even the exceptional occupants of the office have not been free of character flaws and partisan prejudices. Most have at least understood the magnitude of the job they were taking on, even if they couldn’t perform it adequately. A series of weak presidents leading up to the Civil War proved unable or unwilling to do anything to avert the growing emergency; it took Lincoln to do that. In the twentieth century, men who were highly respected and accomplished in other fields, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, nevertheless failed at the presidency. I suspect they were smart enough to realize the job was too much for them. Even presidents who weren’t that smart realized this on some level. Warren G. Harding reportedly confessed to friends that he was in over his head. By contrast, the buffoon who now occupies the Oval Office (when he isn’t too busy partying elsewhere) would never admit to any limitations. The more he blunders, the more he will double down on his own magnificence.

A great president can’t have Trump’s black-and-white, self-centered views. It’s too complicated a world for that. The right man or woman for the job would know how to compromise, to reason, and to see nuances. Opponents would not be dismissed as worthless because they disagree. Last President’s Day, I finally managed to watch all 8.5 hours of HBO’s wonderful series about John Adams, and it was worth it. Adams is unjustly neglected because he was a one-termer. (Trump probably never heard of John Adams, but if he did, he’d no doubt label him a “loser.”) Adams was a loudmouth, often his own worst enemy. But as a young lawyer, he took the courageous and unpopular step of defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre of 1770, winning the acquittal of six of the eight soldiers on the grounds that they acted in self-defense against a mob. The rule of law meant more to Adams than popularity.

He had a complicated relationship with Thomas Jefferson. As young men, they were partners in the struggle for independence, although they differed in their vision of what the young country should become. Then as now, there were disagreements about how strong the central government should be. When Adams became the second president, Jefferson was installed as vice president. It was an uneasy partnership. They agreed on little, and the slavery question was particularly intractable. Adams was adamantly anti-slavery, while Jefferson, who agreed that it was a moral stain on the country, nevertheless professed himself unable to see his way to a solution.

Rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemings were already rampant. The presidential election of 1800 was a close and bitter one, in which Jefferson edged out the incumbent. Adams presumably didn’t do much to broadcast the Hemings story, when it could have helped him most, because he wasn’t sure he believed it. Has Trump ever showed such restraint, once the merest glimmer of a conspiracy theory entered his warped mind?

Adams and Jefferson had a reconciliation of sorts, after both were through with the presidency. They established a correspondence that was still going on when both died, rather weirdly, on the same day, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

There have been other great reconciliations in American history. They came about because the politicians involved, even after a lifetime of disagreements, were able to regard one another as human beings. The brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written at length about a few of these. Her 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, describes Lincoln’s determination to bring on board the three opponents whom he had defeated for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. They were: William Seward, a product of the New York political machine and the frontrunner for most of the race; Salmon Chase, the Ohio governor and the strongest abolitionist among the four; and Edward Bates, Missouri Attorney General and the most conservative of the group.

Imagine how contentious those first cabinet meetings must have been, with the nerves of the campaign still raw. Somehow, those egocentric men found a way to join forces and bring the country through the Civil War. Contrast this with Trump’s handling of his cabinet meetings and briefings. He reportedly can’t sit for them at all unless a chorus of sycophants spends at least the first thirty minutes telling him how great and wonderful he is. They are always on tenterhooks for fear the dear leader will go off the rails if he hears an inconvenient fact that threatens his ego.

The theme of close friends falling out and eventually reconciling seems fairly common in the highest ranks of government. Goodwin’s 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, describes the long, sometimes rocky relationship between back-to-back presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The two met around 1890, when both began working in Washington. Although they were near-opposites in personality, their political philosophies were in tune with the progressive Republican tradition of the time. (Neither, I venture to guess, would be a Republican today.) They enjoyed walking to work together and exchanging ideas, although a streetcar was available. Taft stopped off at the Justice Department where he was solicitor general, and Roosevelt continued ten blocks farther to the Civil Service headquarters where he was Commissioner. The two also enjoyed lunching together. Roosevelt would talk without noticing what he was eating, while the rather rotund Taft was more reticent, and savored his meals. I can imagine what stimulated their discussions. They must have shared plans to rid the government of the corruption that was rampant at that time. Their wives weren’t close, although both were well-educated and literary-minded. Edith Roosevelt was always trying to restrain her impulsive husband, while Nellie Taft’s ambition for her husband exceeded his own.

When Roosevelt became president, Taft served his administration as civilian governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. When Roosevelt left office, he supported Taft in his successful presidential campaign, trusting his own legacy would be continued. It didn’t turn out that way. The two had honest disagreements about how far the progressive movement should go. Taft, a born lawyer and judge, believed that Roosevelt had done harm by trying to bend the Constitution to his will. He didn’t approve of that, even for a good cause. Roosevelt torpedoed Taft’s reelection chances by forming a third party, sending him down to a humiliating defeat. How could anyone be crueler to a former friend?

As in the case of Adams and Jefferson, it took years for the friendship to regenerate, but it finally happened. The first few attempts by Taft to reach out to Roosevelt were not well received. It took a chance meeting at a Chicago hotel, presumably aided by a nice meal, for the two to finally embrace and talk on a person level. Onlookers in the restaurant, understanding the significance of this meeting, reportedly stood and cheered. From then on, the two men enjoyed a lively correspondence until Roosevelt died.

Politicians in America have always argued, debated, and disagreed; the more heated the debates, the more vibrant the democracy. Trump’s pernicious influence is creating a post-democratic system in which well-reasoned disagreements carry less weight than personal attacks. Trump lacks the intellect and character to be president of a democracy, which thrives on honest, well-reasoned differences of opinion. He’d be perfectly cast as the dictator of a banana republic, in which nobody dared to question his perfection and greatness.