Impromptus

Caesar salads, black-eyed peas, &c.

Pierre Salinger in 1961; Rex Tillerson last year (National Archives; Yuri Gripas / Reuters)
DJT, LBJ, Bolton’s mustache, the Egyptian dictatorship, a stroll through Harvard, and more

A story I heard about Trump reminded me of a story I once heard about Lyndon Johnson — the two men have some traits in common.

The story about Trump comes from the Wall Street Journal, to wit,

In a private room in China’s Great Hall of the People in November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat with President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials as their hosts delivered plates of wilted Caesar salad.

Mr. Trump, in the midst of a five-country tour of Asia, grew concerned the untouched greens would offend the Chinese, according to people familiar with the matter. So he ordered Mr. Tillerson to start. “Rex,” he said, “eat the salad.”

Mr. Tillerson laughed off the remark, but the moment illustrated the at-times awkward relationship between the secretary of state and his boss that came to an abrupt end Tuesday when Mr. Trump announced in a tweet that he had replaced him.

(Full story here.)

The story about LBJ, I got from Nelson Polsby, the late political scientist, many years ago. Goes like this: Lunch was served in the White House. On the plates were black-eyed peas. The press secretary, Pierre Salinger, hadn’t touched his. Johnson noticed this and ordered him to eat them. “Eat them peas, Pierre. Eat them peas.”

Whether Salinger did, humiliated, I’m not sure. But he left the White House not long after.

Of course, you could argue that Trump’s dictum came from diplomacy …

• Back when the Trump administration started, it was reported that John Bolton was in the running for a job — but the president objected to his mustache. That mustache is a virtual signature for John. (We’re longtime friends.)

His old boss, George W. Bush, once exclaimed, “The man with the mustache!”

Now, according to reports — I have no inside information — Bolton is again in the running for a job. And on Wednesday, Jacqueline Alemany, a reporter for CBS News, tweeted, “Just asked a source close to the White House if John Bolton’s mustache will go if he replaces McMaster as National Security Advisor. Source doesn’t think the ’stache will go but calls it a ‘sensitive subject.’”

I am reminded of another report, from December:

Before Ronna Romney McDaniel took over as Republican National Committee chairwoman earlier this year, President Trump had a request: Would she be willing to stop using her middle name publicly?

Trump followed up by saying in a lighthearted way that McDaniel, the niece of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, could do what she wanted, according to two people familiar with the comments. But the change was soon plain for all to see. Though she had used her maiden name for years in Michigan, where her grandfather George W. Romney had been governor, McDaniel dropped “Romney” from most official party communications and has rarely used it since.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone could make John Bolton shave his mustache. If he shaved it, it would be because he, and he alone, wanted to.

You know the Stephen Foster song, right?

Oh! all of you poor single men,
Don’t ever give up in despair,
For there’s always a chance while there’s life
To capture the hearts of the fair.
No matter what may be your age,
You always may cut a fine dash,
You will suit all the girls to a hair
If you’ve only got a moustache,
A moustache, a moustache,
If you’ve only got a moustache.

If you’d like to hear Marilyn Horne sing this song — and I recommend it — go here.

• Here is some news out of Egypt:

Egypt wants its citizens to report on the news media.

Escalating a pre-election crackdown on independent or critical reporting, Egyptian authorities have published a list of telephone numbers for citizens to alert them to reports they view as undermining security or spreading false news.

That move is pure dictatorship. Have some more of the story:

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the 2013 overthrow of an elected Islamist president, has waged a massive crackdown on dissent in recent years, and authorities have ratcheted up pressure ahead of the March 26-28 election, in which he faces no real challenge.

Yes, and imagine ratcheting up pressure even when you face no real challenge. Dictators are perpetually afraid of the people they rule. Thus it is with Putin, thus it is with many.

One more paragraph:

All potentially serious competitors either withdrew under pressure or were arrested, leaving only el-Sissi and a little-known politician who supports him.

Yup — classic.

• Not long ago, I was at Harvard, mainly to interview Dante Della Terza. He is a great and nonagenarian Dante scholar. (Yes, they share a first name.) (And yes, Dante composed in terza rima, giving the Harvard scholar yet another connection to him, through his name.) I thought I would throw at you a few notes, in connection with Harvard.

• I am always a little amazed to see the Biblical quotations, etched on buildings. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” That is etched on Emerson Hall.

“And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.” That is etched on Austin Hall.

• I stare at the Memorial Church, too: “In grateful memory of the Harvard men who died in the World War, we have built this Church.” What an impulse for a university to have: Its students die in war, the university builds a church.

(When they say “World War,” they mean WWI, of course. The next one was coming soon.)

• I remember the big semiseptcentennial in 1986 — the 350th anniversary of the founding of Harvard. At a ceremony in the Memorial Church, I happened to sit next to Edward Seaga, an alum who was then the prime minister of Jamaica.

• Representing the Mother Country, England, Prince Charles spoke at some point during the 350th-anniversary celebration. His Rolls-Royce pulled out right near me. He waved from the back seat. He was handsomer than he appeared on television and in photos. Diana was not with him, unfortunately. She was one of the best-looking women on the planet, or so many of us thought (and I still do).

• Also speaking was George P. Shultz, the secretary of state. I will never forget how he read a particular message. What his voice sounded like. An American journalist, Nicholas Daniloff, had just been arrested in the Soviet Union. Google tells me that Shultz said the following:

“I know that I’ve come to the right place to voice a message of outrage at the detention of Nick Daniloff, Harvard Class of 1956. The cynical arrest of an innocent American journalist reminds us of what we already know: Our traditions of free inquiry and openness are spurned by the Soviets, showing the dark side of a society prepared to resort to hostage-taking as an instrument of policy.”

• The Harvard Coop, a department store, reminds me of something — a terrible event in January 1986. I was in the electronics department. There were dozens of televisions on sale. And they were switched on. People were gathered around, staring at them. The space shuttle had apparently blown up. I was hoping and thinking that this was some mistake — that the video, of the explosion, was misleading somehow, and that the astronauts were fine.

What a strange way to hear about, and see, the Challenger disaster — on dozens of televisions in a store.

• Widener Library reminds me of something. There were bag-checkers then and there are bag-checkers now.

One bag-checker, then, was an old man who was never very friendly. In fact, the opposite. One day, St. Patrick’s Day, he was wearing a bright green jacket. As I passed, I told him I liked it. He got tears in his eyes — said his wife, recently deceased, had given it to him.

• I guess I’m a conservative, hopelessly so: I think all the old buildings are good, excellent, or wonderful — and that the new buildings (from the 1960s, ’70s, etc.) are terrible. Oogly.

• I lived just down the street from the Evergood Market. It’s still there — but closed. What I mean is, the store is there, physically, and the sign is intact, but the store is no longer in business. Google tells me it closed after 67 years …

• On campus, I see a truck — sort of like a food truck — that is apparently religious. “The God Squad.” I draw nearer to inspect. Turns out it’s “The Cod Squad.” It is a food truck indeed. “Simply Fresh, Simply New England.”

You don’t feel like cod? Well, there are many trucks to order from: including Tortas Tenochtitlán and Hot Curries in a Hurry.

• I could tell you more, but I’m sure you’ve had enough travelogue and enough Memory Lane. Let me close with another news item: “Police say a bride in southern Arizona was arrested on suspicion of impaired driving after she was involved in a car crash on the way to her wedding.” A bad start — may all subsequent days be better.

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