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.