The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘A Place of Moral Leadership’

King Hussein of Jordan shakes hands with Margalit Badayev, mother of Shiri, one of seven Israeli schoolgirls murdered by a Jordanian soldier. Hussein visited grieving family members on March 16, 1997. (Reuters)

In Impromptus today, I begin with U.S. policy toward China — specifically, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. The bill has passed both houses of Congress and is now on the president’s desk. In the House of Representatives, the vote was 413 to 1. Naturally, I am interested in the one.

When I was coming of age, I was keenly interested in Congress, and when a vote was lopsided — 409 to 3, 426 to 1 — I wanted to know about the dissenters or dissenter. A pattern was clear: The “nay” votes tended to be cast by radical-Left Democrats, such as Ron Dellums, and Ron Paul.

If there were two votes against some motherhood-and-apple-pie resolution in support of Israel, for example, you could have bet that they belonged to Dellums and Paul.

How about the one vote against the Uyghur bill? It was cast by Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky — who said, “When our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs.”

I always think of Solzhenitsyn: “On our crowded planet there are no longer any ‘internal affairs.’ The Communist leaders say, ‘Don’t interfere in our internal affairs. Let us strangle our citizens in peace and quiet.’ But I tell you: Interfere more and more. Interfere as much as you can. We beg you to come and interfere.”

Another item in Impromptus today asks, “What is manliness?” This is a question that recurs, especially on the right. People are always trying to out-macho one another. They flex their muscles, especially at the keyboard. You remember the Saturday Night Live skit, “Quién es más macho?” That’s it.

Early in the Trump administration, a presidential adviser said, “The alpha males are back.” If you criticize the president, you are apt to be called “beta” (and worse). Trump himself has said, “I can tell you, I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

You may know the name of Timothy Klausutis. He is the widower of Lori Klausutis, the Florida woman who died in 2001. She had worked for Joe Scarborough, who was then a congressman. Over and over, President Trump has insinuated that Scarborough murdered this woman.

Timothy Klausutis wrote a letter to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, in which he said this: “I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage. As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life.”

I don’t know how you feel — individual mileage varies — but those lines strike me as manly. As an expression of manliness, or manhood.

Which leads me to James Mattis, another subject of my column. President Trump tweeted, “Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General. I asked for his letter of resignation, & felt great about it. His nickname was ‘Chaos’, which I didn’t like, & changed to ‘Mad Dog.’”

Trump did not fire Mattis. Mattis resigned. Trump did not fire John Bolton. Bolton resigned. After the fact, in each instance, Trump claimed to have fired the man. Both men resigned on principle. Mattis over Syria, and Bolton, it would appear, over Ukraine. (We should know more when Bolton’s memoir comes out.)

You know who both Obama and Trump did fire? Michael Flynn.

Another general, John Kelly, the former chief of staff, has now weighed in. “The president did not fire him,” Kelly said, referring to Mattis. “He did not ask for his resignation. The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused.”

This has ruffled presidential feathers, of course. Kelly ruffled them last year, too, when he spoke at a conference in Sea Island, Ga. He said that he had warned Trump not to hire a yes-man as chief of staff (as Kelly’s replacement). Otherwise, he might find himself impeached.

After Kelly spoke at the conference, the presidential press secretary at the time, Stephanie Grisham, responded, “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great president.”

By the way, Trump did not give Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog,” as he claimed in the above-quoted tweet. That’s another subject, and another pattern. (In 2017, Trump claimed to have coined the phrase “prime the pump,” with reference to economic policy. “I came up with it a couple of days ago,” he told The Economist, “and I thought it was good.”)

In the last ten days, many of us have written about the death of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, and the ensuing riots, and so on. There’s a lot to say. Have you ever mused, or fantasized, What would I do, if I were president? What would I have done? How would I handle the job? I myself have given in to such musings from time to time.

(Don’t worry, the Republic is safe from me: I couldn’t get elected dog-catcher.)

There is a world of difference between Israel in 1997 and Minneapolis in 2020, but bear with me anyway, please. In 1997, a Jordanian soldier massacred seven Israeli schoolgirls. King Hussein went and sat with their grieving families. The symbolism was important. Hussein was performing a kingly act, you might say. I think I might have gone to sit with the family of George Floyd — as a token of national concern, solidarity, and sorrow, if you will.

I know, the president can’t track the death of every sparrow. But some deaths roil the nation, as this one has.

Leadership matters, and the character of a leader matters. These are kindergarten lessons, but they have become more obvious to me in recent years. “The president sets the tone of the country,” it has long been said. But how can that be? We are a big ol’ country — 330 million now — and America is a bottom-up society, not a top-down society!

In theory, sure. But . . .

I hear Trump’s language repeated back to me all the time: “fake news”; “enemy of the people”; “hoax”; “rigged”; “swamp.” Millions and millions take their cues from the president, whether we like it or not.

“The presidency is not merely an administrative office,” said FDR, campaigning for that office in September 1932. “That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is preeminently a place of moral leadership.”

You may kick against this view. Democrats certainly did — or a lot of them did — in the Clinton years. “The president is doing his job, and what he does on his own time, in his private life, with interns or anyone else, is his own business.” Another way to put this is: Are the trains running on time? Is the president implementing the policies I like? Raising taxes, cutting taxes? Regulating, deregulating?

Republicans, in the Clinton years, were big on character, virtue, example-setting — all that gooey stuff. It seems sort of quaint now.

But I think the gooey stuff is key. And I think it will make a comeback, on the right, when a Democrat next occupies the Oval Office. People are like this, whatever their politics.

And you have to acknowledge, a lot of Trump Republicans are high on the president for his character. Two days ago, his press secretary compared him to Churchill. She said that his Lafayette Park walk was like Churchill in the Blitz. Last week, the president himself tweeted, “Congratulations to author Nick Adams on the @simonschuster publication of your new book, ‘Trump and Churchill, Defenders of Western Civilization’. Certainly a great honor to be compared, in any way, to Winston Churchill.”

There you ago. As I said earlier, individual mileage varies.

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