President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

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Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

Jesus Christ and General Jackson

In just a few hours, veteran news anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, an exercise that will shine a bright light on the character of these individuals vying to occupy the Oval Office starting next January 20th.

As a seasoned journalist, Chris Wallace has a unique perspective of those who are called to occupy the seats of power. He has recently put this quality to good use in offering a better understanding of Harry S. Truman, one of the most consequential President in American history.

In Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, the anchor of Fox News Sunday surprised me with his portrait of Truman. I had always been under the impression that the 33rd President was a trigger-happy man who was only too pleased to bomb America’s nemesis in the Pacific. The reality is much more nuanced.

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt’s Veep left behind the bourbon and branch water drink he was enjoying on Capitol Hill to reach the White House urgently. Notoriously sick, the news of the death of the United States Commander in chief nevertheless sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Clearly unprepared, Truman was de facto constitutionally called to replace the beloved leader.

Approximately two weeks after becoming the new White House resident, Secretary of War Henry Stimson broke the news to President Truman that he was about to possess a new superweapon, the atomic bomb, which could play a determining role in the end of the hostilities with Japan. Only two months after being sworn in, Truman travelled to Potsdam for a summit with seasoned leaders Churchill and Stalin. His education as a warlord must have been quite brutal.

Confronted with a seemingly war with no end, the President juggled many different scenarios over several weeks. At first, he considered a ground invasion, a scenario that entailed “[…] a long and bloody conflict.” Another option was “[…] a nonmilitary demonstration [of their new weapon], so the Japanese would see the futility of continuing the war.” But the possibility that the bomb might not work disqualified that option. Furthermore, Secretary of War Stimson, Chief of Staff Leahy, General Marshall and General Eisenhower were all against going for the atomic avenue. And they were no peaceniks. According to the author, “Truman spent more and more time on the question of how to deliver a final ultimatum to Japan”. After several weeks of “long and careful thought”, of agonizing, losing sleep and suffering from headaches, the new President “[…] felt it was inescapable that if the weapon worked, he must be willing to use it.” Even if he didn’t like it.

Even though I will always feel that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been one of the greatest human tragedies of history, I am nevertheless of the opinion that the Americans were blessed to have a thoughtful and considerate man like Harry S. Truman to end the war.

Throughout his book, Chris Wallace depicts him as a decent, loyal and straightforward man whose favorite expression was “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” (I might adopt it myself!). The kind of person you would like to have breakfast with at your favorite eatery. To that effect, my favorite passage from the book is worth quoting at length:

One evening, after another frustrating day at the conference, Truman’s motorcade was leaving the palace when an Army public relations officer asked if he could get in the president’s car. Once the two men were by themselves in the backseat, the colonel said, “Listen, I know you’re alone over here. If you need anything like, you know, I’ll be glad to arrange it for you.”

“Hold it, don’t say anything more,” the president interrupted. “I love my wife, my wife is my sweetheart. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff. I don’t want you ever to say that again to me.” Truman and the colonel rode the rest of the way back to the Little White House in silence.

Chockfull of interesting details that entertain the reader, I was captivated to read about the creation of the Underwater Demolition Teams – the ancestors of the American Navy SEALs – who had to endure “Hell Week”. I also enjoyed learning about Sergeant Bob Caron – a tail gunner from New York – who wrote to the Brooklyn Dodgers to ask for a baseball cap of his favorite team, which he wore during the fateful mission on August 7th, 1945. These are the type of eccentricities that give life to history.

Countdown 1945 deserves a place in the gallery of great books about past US Presidents. Chris Wallace has an engaging pen and a knack for evoking the kind of details that humanizes the characters of his story – even though I would never be fond of being invited to a liver and bacon meal like the one Truman and Stalin liked so much to share at Potsdam.

Hopefully, Chris Wallace’s questions and interventions in tonight’s presidential debate will highlight the qualities required for the highest office in the United States.

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Chris Wallace (with Mitch Weiss), Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2020, 313 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Allie Lawrence from Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), who has been extremely kind in helping me obtaining a copy of this enthralling book.