In journalist Michael Wolff’s scathing new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Donald Trump is portrayed by many of his closest aides in the most derisive of terms. Prior to this book’s appearance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s use of the word moron had received the most coverage of non-flattering words used to describe the nation’s chief executive. This book takes 45 POTUS invective to a new level.
In a way, the moron term might prove to be one the kindest descriptors for Trump. Then there is this:
A number of the president’s key staff are quoted questioning Mr Trump’s intelligence. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and former chief of staff Reince Priebus reportedly labelled Mr Trump an “idiot”, while Mr Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, said he was “dumb as sh-t” and his national security adviser H.R. McMaster described him as a “dope”.
Billionaire Thomas Barrack Jr, who is one of Mr Trump’s closest and oldest friends, is quoted in the book allegedly telling a friend of the president: “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.”
Moron. Dumb. Stupid. Dope. Crazy. Idiot. Not to be outdone, “Rupert Murdoch, co-chairman of 21st Century Fox, once called Trump a “f—ing idiot.”
We can pick from an abundance of adjectives to describe the most salient characteristics of Donald Trump. But of all of these not-so-warm and fuzzy descriptors, there is another, perhaps more telling trait that has come up again and again to describe the former reality star host.
He’s a non-reader.
Surely some folks will be shocked, shocked to learn that their president doesn’t like to read reports or even one-page cheat sheets. With Trump, reading books is a non-starter. (Can you imagine if President Kennedy had not read The Guns of August just before the Cuban Missile Crisis?)
On the other hand, we did know that almost from the beginning of the campaign and beyond, Trump’s handlers wanted him to use the teleprompter, stay on script and thus not wander off the GOP policy reservation. Trump’s aversion to reading is so bad that the New Yorker pundit Andy Borowitz observed that the White House staff will have to act out the new Fire and Fury book for the non-reader president.
But we’ve been here before, and as Yogi Berra might say, it’s déjà vu all over again. For your reading pleasure, we’ve temporarily redacted the name of the subject described in this passage:
No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed. At presidential news conferences, especially in his first year, [the president] embarrassed himself. On one occasion, asked why he advocated putting missiles in vulnerable places, he responded, his face registering bewilderment, “I don’t know but what maybe you haven’t gotten into the area that I’m going to turn over to the secretary of defense.” Frequently, he knew nothing about events that had been headlined in the morning newspaper. …[W]hen asked a question he should have fielded easily, [he] looked befuddled…”
In all fields of public affairs—from diplomacy to the economy—the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded. His mind … was “barren terrain.” … Speaking of one far-ranging discussion … [his] …only contribution throughout the entire hour and a half was to interrupt somewhere at midpoint to tell us he’d watched a movie the night before, and he gave us the plot from War Games.” The president “cut ribbons and made speeches … [b]ut he never knew frijoles from pralines about the substantive facts of issues.” Some thought him to be not only ignorant but, in the word of a former CIA director, “stupid.” [Another] called the president an “amiable dunce…”
That president, unlike the present occupant of the Oval Office, was indeed amiable.
And the identity of that amiable gentleman? Of course, it’s The Gipper, aka St. Ronald Reagan.
William Leuchtenburg, one of America’s greatest living presidential historians (and a favorite biographer who I enjoyed reading while a graduate history student), provides an even more striking comparison between Reagan and Trump. Here is what this eminent scholar wrote nearly three years ago about Reagan, the nation’s 40th president:
His team devised ingenious ways to get him to pay attention. Aware that he was obsessed with movies, his national security adviser had the CIA put together a film on world leaders the president was scheduled to encounter. His defense secretary stooped lower. He got Reagan to sign off on production of the MX missile by showing him a cartoon. Once again, the president made a joke of his lack of involvement: “It’s true that hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?” [Reagan biographer Lou] Cannon, who had observed him closely for years and with considerable admiration, took his lapses more seriously. “Seen either in military or economic terms,” he concluded, “the nation paid a high price for a president who skimped on preparation, avoided complexities and news conferences and depended far too heavily on anecdotes, charts, graphics and cartoons.”
As we examine the strong parallels between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan and the language that has been used to describe them, it is the age issue, sadly, that has now been placed front and center. Reagan was just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated, while Trump was 70 years and six months old at the time of his swearing in on January 20, 2017. [Full disclosure: due to my age, maturity, and the lessons Reagan and Trump have taught me, I have decided not to stand for election any time in the near future.]
So what is the major difference between these two elderly men, both “grossly ill informed” at the time they were sworn in, both prone to senior moments as they forget a name and can’t recognize what should otherwise be a familiar face in the room?
We owe a debt of thanks to presidential biographers William Leuchtenburg and Lou Cannon for reminding us about the language used to describe presidents. But it may prove to be this phrase by Cannon that Americans will be forced to remember for the rest of our lives:
“… the nation paid a high price for a president who skimped on preparation, avoided complexities and news conferences and depended far too heavily on anecdotes, charts, graphics and cartoons.”
And to be contemporaneous, add tweets to the high price list.
It’s one thing to be dunce. Some advice for Donald Trump: be an amiable one.
That is why people will remember The Gipper’s smile, friendly wave and not so much his gaffes. With 45, however, his gaffes and lack of any other redeeming social graces have already condemned him to the ash bin of history.
Whether septuagenarian or otherwise, we’ll remember that. Count on it.