On April 29, 1962, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy hosted a banquet honoring Nobel Laureates at the White House. Forty-nine laureates - or their representatives - attended. The guests included writer Pearl S. Buck, poet Robert Frost, physicist Rudolph Mossbauer (who became a Nobel Laureate at age 32), Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, Mrs. George C. Marshall and Dr. Linus Pauling, the only person ever awarded two Nobel Prizes . . . and in different fields (Chemistry in 1952 and Peace in 1962). (The photo shows President Kennedy chatting with Peal Buck, and Mrs. Kennedy with Robert Frost.)
In toasting this august gathering, JFK famously said: “I think this is the most extraordinary talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Some believe that Kennedy's statement was extemporaneous. But what followed - and is far less famous - was definitely scripted. For he continued, "Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet. Whatever he may have lacked, if he could have had his former colleague, Mr. Franklin, here we all would have been impressed."
This lavish banquet - and Kennedy's rhetorical gem - came to mind as I began doing preliminary research and source checking for this piece, "I" Strain. It got me to thinking about some of the brilliant and immeasurably accomplished men who have served as POTUS: from Lincoln who gave perhaps the most important speech of the past 500 years, to Theodore Roosevelt who was as much a polymath as Jefferson; and from Herbert Hoover who, despite being a failure as president, was nonetheless one of the greatest, most selfless humanitarians in all American history, to FDR, who shed a blue-blood's bespoke tailoring and became a true friend of the working class.
And now we have Donald Trump, who unlike the vast majority of his 44 predecessors, lacks what the Russian writer Dostoevsky once termed "moral dignity" (Crime and Punishment, part one, chapter 4). Defining precisely what Dostoevsky meant by this Kantian term is difficult, but one senses he was referring to mutual respect, as well as the ability to govern one's passions while tempering one's innate prejudices. If my understanding of what Dostoevsky had in mind isn't too far off the mark, then it is reasonable to say that Mr. Trump does indeed lack "moral dignity."
Now, much has been made of Mr. Trump's overwhelming sense of entitlement, his narcissism and apparent disregard - if not outright disdain - for facts, knowledge and what until recently decent folks called "the truth." Of course, for a lie (which Mr. Trump tells plenty of) to become accepted as the truth (which is happening more and more these days), it requires a community of - shall we put it diplomatically - the informationally challenged. To a great extent, these are the kind of people who make up Mr. Trump's most ardent supporters . . . not nearly as many as he claims, or the rest of us fear. Whatever and whenever he Tweets a message - regardless of how outrageous it may be - it captures and shapes the news cycle.
When he was asked the other day what he thought about President Obama's call for a full-scale investigation of nefarious Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump dismissed it with a wave of the hand, calling the assessment "ridiculous," positing that it was nothing more than a stratagem created by angry Democrats to rationalize their electoral loss. Facts, figures and tabulations to the contrary, Mr. Trump has repeatedly claimed that he won a "landslide" victory of "epic proportions." This, of course, is simply not true; Donald Trump won about as many electoral votes (306) as Harry Truman did in the historic race of 1948 (HST won 304). Truman, it should be noted, won the popular vote by 4.5% (about 2.2 million votes), while Trump has the distinction of being one of the very few presidents who won the Electoral College while actually losing the popular vote. (The latest figures have Secretary Clinton receiving 2.8 million more votes than Mr. Trump.) And yet, despite all this, he continues crowing about an overwhelming victory; something his most ardent admirers and supporters believe with every fiber of their misinformed beings. Truth to tell, one cannot even say that Donald Trump received 100% of the votes from people who voted for him; many voted not for Donald Trump but, rather, cast votes against Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Trump's lack of moral dignity, coupled with his overwhelming narcissism, has all but guaranteed that we will have the most "I" strained president in all American history. That is to say, a president who claims to know better than anyone else about . . . well, about nearly everything. What follows is a partial list, based upon Mr. Trump's public statements about the things he claims to know:
- "I understand the tax laws better than almost anyone, which is why I'm the one who can truly fix them."
- "I know more about renewables than any human being on earth."
- "Nobody knows more about debt. I'm like the king. I love debt."
- "I am a person that used to be establishment when I'd give them hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when I decided to run, I became very anti-establishment, because I understand the system better than anybody else."
- "Nobody knows more about trade than me."
- "Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump."
- "I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me."
- "There is nobody who understands the horror of nuclear more than me (sic)."
- "Nobody knows the (Visa) system better than me. I know the H1B. I know the H2B. Nobody knows it better than me."
- "There's nobody bigger or better at the military than I am (sic)."
- "Nobody reads the Bible more than me."
- "I alone can fix it."
Already, Trump's "I" strain is beginning to show; his monomania is wearing thin:
- If he is truly on the side of working people then why, oh why has he nominated Andrew Puzder, chief executive of the company that franchises Hardees and Carl's, Jr. to be his Secretary of Labor? Puzder is an outspoken critic of the worker protections enacted by the Obama Administration, is against raising the minimum wage, and believes that robots make better fast-food workers than human beings.
- If Trump really believed - as he repeatedly said during the campaign - that Hillary Clinton was far too close to Wall Street (especially Goldman Sachs), why, oh why has he tapped current or former Goldman executives Steve Bannon (Chief Political Advisor), Gary Cohn (Director, National Economic Council) and Steve Mnuchin (Sec. of Treasury) to be high-ranking members of his administration?
- If Donald Trump is so much smarter than the generals and promises to get rid of the lion's share of them within his first hundred days, then why, oh why has he nominated so many of them? Why has he ripped through the traditional veil which keeps the U.S. military in civilian hands?
- And while we're at it, what in the world does the World Wide Wrestling Federation's Linda McMahon know about running the Small Business Administration, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt know about the Environmental Protection Agency (except that he wants to get rid of it) or Jim O'Neil, a non physician/scientist who favors doing away with rules requiring drugs to be safely approved before people can take them, to head the Food and Drug Administration?
This is insanity, to say the least.
But then again, one who is in the throes of "I" strain, is incapable of believing that he or she can ever do anything wrong.
Perhaps someday a future POTUS will invite 80 or 90 world-class egomaniacs to the White House for a banquet. And perhaps that president - whoever he or she may be - will offer the following toast: "Here's to the greatest collection of ego-driven narcissists ever assembled under this roof . . . with the possible exception of when Donald Trump dined alone . . ."
Copyright©2016 Kurt F. Stone