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.

Q & A with CDR Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired)

GuySnodgrass3
Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.

In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.

Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?

All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.

His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush

What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).

Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).

Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?

I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.

NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?

Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)

No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?

Yes: TOPGUN’s TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit (just posted on Amazon). An opportunity to share the most powerful lessons I learned during my time as a TOPGUN Instructor.

I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.

Would you consider a run for political office in the future?

Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.