Victor Davis Hanson
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Democratic Presidents BEHAVED A Lot WORSE Than Trump in the White House
It's more likely history will judge President Trump for accomplishments in office than for character flaws. AP
Victor Davis Hanson
Victor Davis Hanson
Progressives claim President Trump marks a new low in American political and presidential history, personifying a singularly odious message.
But if we examine the present pantheon of progressive icons, and strip away their reliance on liberal-media protection and transfer them instead into the present age of tabloid promiscuity and cyber omnipresence, would we now have a very different view of their presidencies?
The progressive Woodrow Wilson administration likely would never have completed its two elected terms had it operated on media protocols common just a half-century later.
For nearly a year during the failing health and death of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson, the president fell into a state of debilitating depression, carefully hidden from the press. Much later, during the last 17 months of Wilson’s presidency, he was more or less unable to fulfill his duties due to a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed and visually impaired. Those realities were carefully hidden from the public by the efforts of his second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, and physician Dr. Cary Grayson.
In the present case, we know that Trump is neither comatose nor is Melania running the country.
The country never learned the full extent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s paralysis. Much less did it know of FDR’s past and ongoing affairs — the mechanics of which were sometimes carried out in the White House and with the skillful aid of his own daughter Anna. By fall 1944, Roosevelt, seeking a fourth term, was suffering from a series of life-threatening conditions. Worrying that the public would not vote yet again for a terminally ill president, sympathetic journalists and military physicians covered up Roosevelt’s illnesses — on the theory that FDR would survive long enough to get elected to a fourth term and ensure a continued Democratic administration.
Clearly, in our age of the internet and social media and an inquisitorial media, Ivanka Trump could not have been helping her father conduct a stealth affair in the White House while conspiring to hide his likely terminal illness from the public.
John F. Kennedy, by contemporary standards, was a serial sexual harasser, if not a likely assaulter. While physically in the White House he carried on sexual trysts with subordinates and others without security clearances, mostly with the full knowledge of the complacent White House press corps. One former JFK intern, Mimi Alford, later wrote a memoir describing losing her virginity at 19 years of age to the president in the White House presidential bed. On his direction and in his audience, she was leveraged into performing oral intercourse in the White House swimming pool on his aide David Powers, who routinely set up the president’s extramarital trysts.
For all his alleged goatishness, Trump is currently not orchestrating group sexual encounters in the White House basement.
Lyndon Johnson was not just a serial adulterer and often corrupt, but displayed a level of crudity that would now be seen as clinical, from conducting business while defecating on the toilet to exposing his genitals to staff — apparently as some sort of Freudian proof of his own, and by extension, his nation’s, manhood. In a debate answer to a sneer from Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump seems to have referenced obliquely his private parts (“I guarantee you there’s no problem”) but never to our knowledge has he displayed them to staffers.
There is no reason to review the escapades of an impeached Bill Clinton. Despite the efforts of a sympathetic media, many of his transgressions were in part aired to the public. They ran the full gamut of a classical sexist and misogynist, from likely sexually assaulting chance acquaintances to attempting to defame and ruin the reputations of women deemed liable to disclose past liaisons.
What differentiates Trump’s womanizing from that of prior presidents, like Clinton’s, is that his escapades were prior to, not during, his presidential service.
A study published by the liberal Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that coverage of the Trump presidency in its first hundred days was 80 percent negative, as evidenced in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, in addition to CNN, CBS, Fox News and CNBC parent NBC, as well as European news outlets the Financial Times, BBC and ARD in Germany. The same researchers found that coverage of Trump was about twice as negative as had been true of reporting on Barack Obama.
How did the media and progressive critics reconcile a supposedly historically unhinged and dangerous president with a largely successful agenda that by mid-2018 was polling positive? And how exactly had such a flawed character as Trump made impressive Cabinet appointments and restored economic vibrancy at home and deterrence abroad?
Stranger still, Trump earned vitriol often for voicing positions shared by past progressive presidents and presidential candidates: skepticism over NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreements, slapping tariffs on Chinese companies for dumping, congratulating Vladimir Putin and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt for “election” victories and Xi Jinping on his “extraordinary elevation,” or issuing expansive executive orders as Obama had. Finally, the anti-Trump progressives and Democrats, especially those in the media, did not fully appreciate that the more they voiced loudly their antipathy to Trump, and did so in escalating fashion, the more Trump was able to manipulate them as proof of how unhinged and excitable the alternative to himself was.
The small number of Never Trump conservatives who equally despised Trump, also felt his crudity was unlike any other president’s. But unlike progressives, they faced an additional dilemma: The presidential messenger was often successfully enacting an agenda that they not only had in the past supported, but also at least privately admitted was empowered by Trump himself. Nonetheless, their complaint was that Republicans stood for character. And Trump lacked it.
But, on matters of character, did Trump’s tawdry trysts with women, often a decade before his presidency, mean that he lacked character and thus stained the conservative cause, in a way that the often promiscuous Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton had not rendered their own liberal accomplishments null and void? When reports surfaced that George H.W. Bush, in his 80s and 90s, had serially groped a few women and embarrassed them with nasty jokes, did conservatives recalibrate his administration’s record?
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a successful president in the manner that he had been an effective supreme allied commander. Yet under current Trump-era workplace protocols, Ike would likely never have been nominated, given his poorly hidden relationship with his divorced chauffeur Kay Summersby and his implausible outright denials of the affair while he held the title of supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
Our current media and political climate would have judged the careful Eisenhower reckless, or indeed callously immoral, in his downtime with the loquacious Summersby while battle raged just miles away from his headquarters.
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were both emblematic of flyover-state, rock-solid values. They stayed married. They did not cash in while in their offices. They largely told the truth. Their administrations were mostly free of scandal. Their speech was rarely ad hominem. America certainly benefitted from their personal probity. They were, in other words, role models and ethical public servants.
But both Ford and Carter proved largely ineffective presidents. In terms of economic stagnation between 1974 and 1981, millions of lives were perhaps worse off for their tenures. Few can point to any lasting substantial achievements, apart from airline deregulation and the Arab-Israeli Camp David Accords in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Ford’s sad “Whip Inflation Now” button campaign and Carter’s serial disasters (stagflation, the appeasement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, the rudderless foreign policy) are not arguments that good character does not matter, only that it is not necessarily always a guarantee of good governance.
In some sense, Donald Trump was replaying the role of the unpopular tenure of loudmouth Democrat Harry Truman, the president from 1945 to 1953.
“Give ’em Hell” Harry came into office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He miraculously won the 1948 election against all expert opinion and polls.
Truman left office in January 1953 widely hated. Indeed, his final approval ratings (32 percent) were the lowest of any departing president except for those of Richard Nixon.
The outsider Truman had always been immersed in scandal, owing to his deep ties to the corrupt Kansas City political machine.
When the novice Vice President Truman took office after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, he knew little about the grand strategy of World War II — and nothing about the ongoing atomic-bomb project.
For the next seven-plus years, Truman shocked — and successfully led — the country.
Over the objections of many in his Cabinet, Truman ignored critics and ordered the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. Against the advice of most of the State Department, he recognized the new state of Israel.
He offended Roosevelt holdovers by breaking with wartime ally the Soviet Union and chartering the foundations of Cold War communist containment. Many in the Pentagon opposed his racial integration of the armed forces. National-security advisors counseled against sending troops to save South Korea.
Liberals opposed fellow Democrat Truman’s creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Truman was widely loathed for firing controversial five-star general and American hero Douglas MacArthur.
There were often widespread calls in the press for Truman to resign. Impeachment was often mentioned. Truman, in short, did things other presidents had not dared to do.
Truman occasionally swore. He had nightly drinks. He played poker with cronies. And he shocked aides and the public with his vulgarity and crass attacks on political enemies.
Truman cheaply compared 1948 presidential opponent Thomas Dewey to Hitler and attacked him as a supposed pawn of bigots and war profiteers.
Truman hyperbolically claimed a Republican victory in 1948 would threaten America’s very liberty.
In the pre-Twitter age, Truman could never keep his mouth shut: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”
When a reviewer for The Washington Post trashed Truman’s daughter’s concert performance, Truman threatened him with physical violence.
“It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” Truman wrote in a letter to critic Paul Hume.
“Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!”
Such outbursts were Trumpian to the core.
It took a half-century for historians to concede that the mercurial and often adolescent Truman had solid accomplishments, especially in foreign affairs — in part because Truman conveyed a sense that he did not much care for staying in Washington, a city in which he was not invested, did not like and would quickly leave at the end of his tenure.
Even Truman’s crassness eventually was appreciated as integral to his image of a “plain speaking” and “the Buck Stops Here” decisive leader.
Had Truman access to Twitter, he could have self-destructed in a flurry of ad-hominem electronic outbursts. Yet Truman proved largely successful because of what he did, and in spite of what he said.
Donald J. Trump’s presidency is too brief to yet be judged absolutely. His personal foibles are too embedded within current political and media hatred to be assessed dispassionately.
Too many assessments too quickly have been made about Trump, without much historical context and usually with too much passion.
Neither is it yet clear that Trump is a bad man or a good president, or vice versa, or neither or both.
But if the past is sometimes a guide to the present, Trump in theory certainly could become a more effective president than would have been his likely more circumspect Republican primary rivals, while perhaps demonstrating that he is far more uncouth.
The paradox again raises the question: When any one man can change the lives of 330 million, what exactly is presidential morality after all — private and personal sins, or the transgressions that affect millions of lives for the worse?
Adapted excerpt from “The Case for Trump” by Victor Davis Hanson. Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.