MUSE, PROSE AND CONS! NOVEMBER EDITION

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The month of November in the United States, at least from my recollection, has always had good vibes.   Almost wherever you are geographically, there is a freshness in the air, autumnal accents fill your senses and as Thanksgiving approaches we all seem to know that we are on the inevitable slide into Holidays, Christmas cheer and the New Year.   It is a time for thankfulness and that usually requires some looking back and reminiscing.   It is a season in which to be thankful, despite the trials one faces or has faced.   It is a good clearing house of emotion for the karmic wheel.   No matter what, most of us have a lot to be thankful for.

On a personal note, it was on November 11th, 1987 that I stepped up to conduct an orchestra in concert for the very first time.   The Overture to Gluck’s Iphiginie in Aulis.   The sensations of that evening are still with me as if it were yesterday.   This month marks my thirtieth year on the podium.

Here in the United States we have just been through a local election and this month also marks one year since the current incumbent of the White House was elected president – so it is probably appropriate to look back on that.

potusPOTUS

Of the many things the President of the United States (POTUS) has said in the last year, the one comment that has lingered with me, perhaps longer than any of his comments have a right to, has been this statement:

“With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”   D. J. T.– July 2017

I might have let it go, because it is generally good for one’s health to let the president’s comments dissipate without debate – but very recently Lord Bannon, Churl of Breitbart is trying to memorialize and historicize the foolish.  He is on record as saying:

“…he’ll (POTUS) be considered in the pantheon of Reagan and Lincoln and others as great presidents,…”

BannonBannon

In a very strong field of nonsense, this comment forces me into rebuttal.   Not just because there is so much personal baggage, idiosyncrasy and uncharted psychology in this president, (which is not worth discussion here) – but because there is so much grand evidence to the contrary which cries out to be noticed if we are to enjoy Christmas.   Here below, a few comments and comparisons.

I haven’t drawn comparisons with multiple presidents, – though 44 men clamor to be heard –  I don’t need that much ammunition.  I haven’t compared the president with any founding fathers.  That’s too unfair, even if POTUS and Bannon didn’t realize how ludicrous their comments really were.   I haven’t drawn comparisons with any Democratic presidents, because this is not a partisan attack – though POTUS probably doesn’t know where he really stands politically, given his liquid stance on absolutely everything – depending on who’s in the room, who makes him comfortable and who’s applauding loudest.   I haven’t chosen Teddy or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (or Lincoln) because just the names are enough to deliver a crushing blow.  Because historical timing is a great diviner of legacy, let’s stick to modern republican presidents.  Since 1960 that’s Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the Bush family to choose from but even these presidents – whom I have also not chosen – with all their foibles and flaws were awed by their responsibility, took the presidency as the honor of a lifetime and – for the most part – respected the role they played.

President NixonPresident Nixon

Yes, even Nixon, for all his trials and the degradation of his final comeuppance was an extraordinary mind, and an extraordinary politician that changed the lives of millions of Americans for the better.  I know it was my intention not to use more than one president to make my point, but…really…we’re talking about Nixon.   Even disgraced and vilified Nixon did great things.  He opened the way to China, established important agencies – now under threat – like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and signed important pieces of legislation that allow us to monitor clean air, water, food and general conditions of life on the planet.  Without these regulations we wouldn’t have the warning markers of climate change.  When climate scientists examine ice cores – the extraordinarily accurate view of our past climate preserved in trapped oxygen bubbles – the year in which Nixon signed the Clean Air Act is clearly visible.

Nixon alone could put the current POTUS into his pocket if it were just on brilliance, political acumen, general competence or contribution to the United States – if we are generous enough to discount the self-derailment of the man towards the end. Perhaps Nixon would have been a good comparison thesis, not just because of the Nixon/Atwater overt appeal to a racially biased electorate, but also because of the potential endgame. At least with Nixon we elected a figure who lost out to his inner demons – disintegrating into psychosis, suspicion and anger. This time round, we seem to have elected the psychosis, suspicion and anger right from the start, watching POTUS wear all three as honorifics – and be applauded for it.

My candidate for this comparison is an extraordinary man who served as President to Nixon’s Vice President.

Dwight. D. Eisenhower, (Ike) Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who led the largest allied force ever assembled, to victory over the Third Reich, before serving eight years as president where his monthly approval rating never flagged below 60%.    Yes, it’s already “Game Over” I know, but it gets really interesting, so I’ll continue.

Firstly, if you have any leadership skill – and have an unfettered power of appointment – then you surround yourself with– and are naturally surrounded by – the best, well-equipped, ablest people who gravitate towards you.  This is true of almost anyone, no matter what they do.

Through war, the lofty persons that appear flanking Eisenhower were all remarkable men called by history to their moment of service.  At Ike’s rank, Chief of Staff Bedell-Smith and Air Chief Marshal Tedder, below him Admiral Ramsey, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, Generals Montgomery, Patton and Bradley – above him Churchill, De Gaulle and Roosevelt.  What a quiver full of greats…and what a different time it was.   Does POTUS’ comment really suppose that the we would have forgotten the ‘greatest generation’?

In peacetime, a bipartisan – if not nonpartisan stance allowed Eisenhower to work across the aisle to great effect, with a pliant Lyndon Johnson who became president and Sam Rayburn – one of that rare and wonderful breed of Texas Democrats – the longest serving Speaker of the House, who has a building named after him that houses offices of Members of the House, in Washington, D.C.    We’ve seen POTUS show zero understanding of the legislative branch, how it works and how the office he temporarily holds should interact with congress.

Eisenhower’s appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) are equally inspired, even though they didn’t always side with him.   He understood the separate and equal status of the Judiciary and respected their decisions.   The Earl Warren and William Brennan years ushered in a new era of civil rights jurisprudence.   In contrast, POTUS is unable to restrain himself from meddling in the judiciary, from undermining civil liberties, castigating sitting judges, pardoning law breakers, and from putting pressure on judicial agencies and processes way beyond the allowance of his remit – and perhaps with criminal consequences.  The Eisenhower cabinet, true to form was manned by great worthies.  Surrounding yourself with the best people is a reflection of your judgment.

In this executive branch, there is no one in POTUS’ original côterie of attendants that is supremely qualified or worthy, in comparison to their forebears.   All those currently in position including the chief of staff and the press secretary are second and third choices, of a slim field whittled away by infighting, incompetency and resignation.  The rest are fired, scandalized, or under criminal indictment.

“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,…”  – D. J. T.
The results are entirely a reflection of his judgment.

President EisenhowerPresident Eisenhower

I urge my readers to explore Jean Edward Smith’s extraordinary book ‘Eisenhower: In War and Peace’   Much of the material that follows is taken from the introduction to her excellent book, and if I have quoted her without doffing my cap, in any instance then I sincerely apologize.    I thought it would be a good thing to either quote Eisenhower himself, or quote Jean Edward Smith in her profound understanding of the man.  My readers are free to make their own comparisons with the current POTUS – perhaps through the phrases and words that are bolded below- and judge for themselves whether he and Ike are allowed to breathe the same air.

“To those who knew him, Ike was a tireless taskmaster who worked with incredible subtlety to move events in the direction he wished them to go.  Most would agree he was a man of principle, decency, and common sense, whom the country could count on to do what was right.  In both war and peace he gave the world confidence in American leadership.”    Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower made victory appear inevitable.  He did not posture or pose for the press, he issued no grandiloquent communiqués, and he did not pit himself against high command or political authority.  He got on with the job with a minimum of fuss.   He was parsimonious with the lives of the troops entrusted to his command…and ready to take responsibility for whatever occurred.   Jean Edward Smith

With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower was the most successful president of the twentieth century.   He ended a three year, no-win war in Korea with honor and dignity; resisted calls for preventive war against the Soviet Union and China; deployed the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa (Taiwan) from invasion; faced down Khrushchev over Berlin; and restored stability in Lebanon. Ike punctured the Roosevelt coalition, weaned the Republican party from its isolationist past, restored the nation’s sanity after the McCarthyite binge of Communist witch-hunting, and proved unbeatable at the polls.   During his two terms in the White House, his monthly approval rating averaged 64 percent, a statistic unbroken since World War II.”   Jean Edward Smith

Perhaps of particular note is this administration’s return to isolationist rhetoric; jingoistic pronouncements that might lead to another Korean war; no staying hand on the notion of preventive war or nuclear conflagration; an inability to face down Russia; and a devolving into the insanity of witch-hunting and binging on populist misinformation, disinformation and …well…lies.  A despotic overthrow of democratic norms comes incrementally and in a way that can remain unchecked.   And who will stop him, since there is no one in the room with him who can?

History has shown that the president will always face dangerous and critical moments – in which he alone must decide – sometimes overruling his advisors or doing the unpopular.   All our Presidents, including the recent ones have had this moment and dealt with it – often steering our nation away from catastrophe within a hair’s width of wiggle room.   Kennedy in the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis.   Bush in reaching out to the Muslim community immediately and without reservation after 9/11.   Obama in the situation room ordering the attack on Bin Laden, over the skepticism of his advisors.   It requires three attributes to be present at the same time.   Commanding Knowledge, Solid Principles and Strength of Character.   If even one of these is missing – the whole thing can go belly up.

Eisenhower was encouraged by everyone around him – including Vice President Nixon, Dulles and the National Security Council – to use nuclear weapons in Dien Bien Phu – and once again five years later against China.   It seemed to be the go-to mechanism of response, but Ike knew better.  He resisted those attempts saying:

We can’t use those awful things … for the second time in less than ten years.  My God.”   Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower restrained our allies Britain, France and Israel from what he referred to as ‘old fashioned gunboat diplomacy’ – forcing a withdrawal from Suez.  This even handed, impartial move brought more prestige to American world leadership than any move before or since.    It is unlikely that POTUS realizes the complex waters of statesmanship.   He has championed the notion of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ interfering with a heavy hand in delicate situations beyond his comprehension.  We wonder what finessed, highly educated world leaders all over, including his counterpart in the Kremlin, think of him, and by association, we who elected him.   A CliffsNotes-Beginners 101 understanding, egotistically pronounced with the panache of an expert, is precisely what lays this president so open to manipulation.   Putin and Xi Jinping, now in extraordinary ascendency, are consolidating their position on the world stage not because they are strong but because POTUS has proven to be weak.   Even with his trip to the Middle East, at wheels-up, the Saudi’s had the upper hand, and they and everyone else knew it.

Eisenhower, however it might have been viewed at the time, took his responsibilities under the Constitution very seriously. The‘…take care that the laws be faithfully executed…’ portion of Article II – and the “faithfully execute” portion of the oath of office – forced him to send in troops to protect the civil rights cause of desegregated students at Central High, Arkansas, in 1957– because it was the law, and because it was a judgment of the Supreme Court.

Sending in the troops was the hardest decision I had had to make since D-Day…but Goddamn it, it was the only thing I could do.”  D. D. Eisenhower.

The president is not there to dismantle laws he does not like.   He is there to uphold laws that have been passed by the democratic process, regardless of his personal views.    The recent gutting of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions, a law that has passed the scrutiny of three Supreme Court challenges, literally cutting the tree and waiting for it to fall, is disingenuous at best and a constitutional disgrace at worst.   **

I’m just getting warmed up!

Eisenhower masterminded the construction of, and opened the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean

Eisenhower presided over the inclusion of the State of Alaska into the fold of the United States.

Eisenhower built our existing interstate freeway system, connecting the entire mainland United States with a dizzying network of roadways, throbbing with commerce.   Much of it hasn’t been upgraded since, a testament to the quality of the initial builder, and a condemnation of all administrations who haven’t repaired and replaced it as safety and progress demanded.   We are outstripped by the quality and architectural vision of super roadways and bridges in what we continue to patronizingly call the third world

Can you imagine the boost to the economy and the lasting legacy of just one of these accomplishments, let alone all three of them.

Eisenhower also signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 on which foundation the lifechanging 1964 legislation would stand.   He balanced the federal budget three times refusing to cut taxes and raise defense spending, despite much pressure to do so.   And perhaps the greatest achievement of all, keeping America at peace and out of war for his entire tenure.   No president since Eisenhower has presided over peace.

If there were failures in Eisenhower’s presidency they all center around other people – failing to moderate the Republican party or failing to denounce McCarthy forcefully enough.  They were not based on a lack of accomplishment.

Let’s compare the current administration by their own reckoning.

Never has there been a president, with few exceptions — case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle — who has passed more legislation and who has done more things than what we’ve done…”   D. J. T. – after one year in office, marked with privation, zero accomplishment, criminal indictments, the rise of hate groups, the willful ignorance of facts and inept global strategy.

Anything POTUS has promised on infrastructure – if he delivers – will be like icing a cake that is already baked   True to form, there is not much original thought or original policy at work in 2017.   All of it seems to be centered on dismantling the work of his predecessor, and that too, just because POTUS lost a school yard scuffle at the Correspondents Dinner in 2016.   Several comments made by qualified observers, including several republican senators, that refer to the need for adult supervision at the White House, or the president’s childish or troubled teen approach to social interaction are more disturbing than they are amusing **

Eisenhower was buried in a simple, army issue, $80/-dollar pine box, with no medals and decorations but his 5 Star Rank Insignia and his trademark Ike Jacket.   For his generation of career soldiers, promoted not by currying favor with their superiors,  but based on skill and experience, none of them would stand for the pomp some generals go for today.   Jean Edward Smith uses the phrase ‘decorated like Christmas trees’ to describe some of these modern generals – more preoccupied with their position and rank than their job and honor.   It conjures up those images of generals in North Korea, festooned with medals well below the waist.

General Flynn – POTUS’ pick for National Security Advisor General Flynn – POTUS’ pick for National Security Advisor
(resigned in disgrace, facing criminal charges)

DPRK Senior Military Officials ‘decorated like Christmas trees’DPRK Senior Military Officials ‘decorated like Christmas trees’.

There is also an honor and a principle in high command that insists on diplomacy – exhausting diplomacy – and if necessary trying it again.   They realize, perhaps first hand, that war is not an option, ….ever!   There are several high ranking individuals serving today – and more than a few senators (McCain)who retired with honor from the armed forces.  who espouse this as a core belief.   None seem to be in a position to influence POTUS – who seems intent on brandishing our nuclear arsenal like Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB Gun from A Christmas Story.   “He’ll shoot his(our)eye out!”

General D. D. Eisenhower – Supreme Commander – Allied Forces EuropeGeneral D. D. Eisenhower – Supreme Commander – Allied Forces Europe
(Five Star General – no show, no muss, no fuss)

I believe that the measure of a man is encapsulated in what he does.   The reputation of that man, a reputation that allows him to do what he does, is built on how he thinks and what he says.
Here now some direct quotes from President Eisenhower.
For the purposes of this comparative blog – consider it Ike’s twitter feed.

“I’m just folks.  I come from the people, the ordinary people.”    D. D. Eisenhower

“No human enterprise goes flat so instantly as an Army training camp when war ends.”   D. D. Eisenhower
(Is that why it is now permanent practice to remain at war? )

“Tempers are short!  There are lots of amateur strategists on the job – and prima donnas everywhere.   I’d give anything to be back in the field.”                                D. D. Eisenhower, January 1942

It’s all so terrible, so awful, that I constantly wonder how “civilization” can stand war at all.”  D. D. Eisenhower

“I expressed the hope that we would never have to use such a thing against any enemy because I disliked seeing the United States take the lead in introducing into war something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon was described to be.”  D. D. Eisenhower.

“I know something of the solemn responsibility of leading a crusade.  I accept your summons.  I will lead this crusade.”
D. D. Eisenhower. – On accepting the nomination in 1952

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,  those who are cold and not clothed.”   D. D. Eisenhower. 1953

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would never hear of the party again…,  There is a tiny splinter group that believes you can do these things.  Among them are H.L.Hunt…{and} a few other Texas millionaires.  But their number is negligible, and they are stupid.”    D. D. Eisenhower

In the starkest way in which I might describe the current administration, I am reminded of this passage from the Book of Common Prayer.

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

When you hear the moniker – ‘greatest president ever’ think on our rich history and think on the truth.

Don’t go by what people say.   Go by what people do.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

 

Many thanks!