On Being Oblivious to Humiliation

Anyone can grow up to be president, even Donald Trump. He had never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He had no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he had no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. He wasn’t presidential. He was a reality television star, but he was also a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again – and America made him president.

That settled matters. Anyone can grow up to be president, even a black man whose middle name is Hussein. One day someone who seems to be Jewish will be president. Why not? One day it may be an atheist – one who lets the religious folks do what they want, within the law, but just doesn’t see much point in all that God stuff, because the job has nothing to do with that. He’d have the Constitution on his side. One day it may be an openly gay man or woman. Who cares? Can they do the job? That matter may be settled too. One day it might even be a woman – probably not, but that’s possible.

Parents, tell the kid that he (or she) really could grow up to be president. Point to Donald Trump, but point out that there are things to avoid. No one wants to grow up to be the president’s press secretary, facing the cameras each day, trying to explain what the president really meant to say. That’s a job at the center of things, in the spotlight, but that’s an awful job. That ruined Sean Spicer. He had to go out and tell the press that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the biggest in history. The photos lied. He had to pretend to be very angry that anyone would question that, and he looked like a fool, and it got worse, and then Saturday Night Live mocked him, week after week, with a clever woman playing him as an unhinged scold. He was gone soon enough. Sarah Huckabee Sanders took his place. She’s the one now trying to explain what the president really meant to say. She’s better at it, perhaps because she hides any hint of what she really thinks, and perhaps because no one wants to pick on a woman, but she may not last. No one can remain forever oblivious to their own humiliation.

That’s the job. That’s always been the job. The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald looks back at that:

In late August 1973, as the Watergate scandal ate away at President Richard Nixon’s psyche and presidency, CBS News correspondent Dan Rather filed an astonishing report on the evening news.

“What you are about to see,” Rather said, “is a rare glimpse in public of presidential irritation.”

And there it was on tape: The president of the United States grabbing press secretary Ron Ziegler by the shoulders and shoving him away.

Those of us who are very old do remember that:

Ziegler, by now, was a familiar and reviled figure, the man who called the Watergate scandal a simple “third-rate burglary.” Nixon, by now, was facing a special prosecutor. For the first time in months, Nixon ventured out of Washington to give a speech – to a veterans group in New Orleans…

“Even by Nixon’s usual standards,” wrote historian David Greenberg, “his behavior in New Orleans was bizarre.”

Nixon was walking toward the convention hall, toward his first friendly audience in months.

“He wanted nothing in his way, in front or in back, before he got at the crowd inside,” the Washington Post’s magazine later reported in a profile of Ziegler. “But breathing on him from behind was Ziegler and the clump of TV cameras, mics and newsmen that inevitably followed.”

Nixon’s famous temper was activated.

He stuck his finger in Ziegler’s chest, turned him around, and then shoved him in the back hard with both hands, saying “I don’t want any press with me and you take care of it.”

You take care of it. That’s the job, but then it got weird:

Rather saw it with his own eyes. His cameraman got it on tape – but when Rather rushed to ask a president’s aide about the incident, he was told nothing happened. Rather seethed, recounting the conversation with the aide in New York magazine a year later:

“Why did the president push Ron Ziegler?”

“He didn’t push him.”

“I’m telling you, we’ve got film of him pushing him.”

“Well, it just didn’t happen.”

Rather viewed the tape. He called White House officials and told them he was literally watching the president of the United of States shove his press secretary. Rather was informed that he misinterpreted what his camera recorded.

He ended his segment that evening saying, “The president’s aides deny he is nervous or testy anything.”

What? Everyone saw what they saw, but Ziegler understood:

“Afterward, on the plane going home, he came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder, in front of the whole staff, and apologized,” Ziegler told The Post in 1981.

There had been, he said, some sort of assassination threat.

“And more Watergate stuff was starting to come out,” he added.

Nixon didn’t want to hurt him.

“It was not a shove of anger,” Ziegler says. “It was a shove of frustration.”

There may not be any difference between the two, and everyone knew it:

For Nixon, the event fueled concern about his mental health, both from his staff and the reporters covering his collapse.

In Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “Another good bet in Washington – running at odds between 2 and 3 to 1, these days – is that Nixon will crack both physically and mentally under all this pressure. This is not so wild a vision as it might sound – not even in the context of my own known taste for fantasy and savage bias in politics.”

The pressure, Thompson wrote, must be crippling.

“I have to admit that I feel a touch of irrational sympathy for the old bastard,” he wrote.

Everyone else felt a touch of irrational sympathy for Ron Ziegler. He was no more than a flunky, but he didn’t deserve that humiliation. Still, a good press secretary must be oblivious to humiliation. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is working on that:

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to finesse a weekend tweet from President Donald Trump blaming the FBI’s Russia investigation for missing a tip about the Florida shooting, saying the agency should not focus on a “hoax in terms of investigating the Trump campaign.”

“Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!” Trump tweeted.

Sanders, speaking to reporters Tuesday in her first briefing since the shooting, said the President wasn’t saying “necessarily” that the Russia investigation was responsible for the FBI missing the signs on the Florida shooter.

What he really meant was this:

“I think he was speaking not necessarily that is the cause. I think we all have to be aware that the cause of this was a deranged individual that made a decision to take the lives of seventeen other people,” Sanders said. “That is the responsibility of the shooter, certainly not the responsibility of anybody else.”

She added: “I think he is making the point that we would like our FBI agencies to not be focused on something that is clearly a hoax in terms of investigating the Trump campaign.”

What? She was saying that Trump was blaming the FBI for just what he said – but not really – but she was saying that he had a point. She has a thankless job, and then things got worse:

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused a Fox News reporter of “taking [her] words out of context” Tuesday as the reporter questioned her about President Trump’s response to last week’s deadly shooting at a Florida high school.

Fox News’ John Roberts asked Sanders if Trump “has any ideas, any ideas at all, on how to address” the issue of mass shootings, or if Trump was “starting from scratch.”

Fox News was now making trouble, which must have been unnerving, but she did the best she could:

“I can tell you that the president supports not having the use of bump stocks and that we expect further action on that in the coming days,” Sanders said. “I can tell you that the president doesn’t support the use of those accessories.”

“And on the broader problem of deranged individuals getting ahold of weapons and killing people indiscriminately, does he have any ideas on how to deal with this?” Roberts asked.

Sanders replied that was “part of the conversations we’re going to have here.”

That didn’t help:

Roberts interjected, asking if Trump was “starting from scratch” on new proposals. “If he has to listen to a bunch people, if he doesn’t have ideas of his own, that would suggest he doesn’t have any ideas,” the Fox News reporter said.

“That’s not what I said. You’re taking my words out of context,” Sanders responded.

“Well, could you explain?” Roberts asked.

“Well, I was trying to before you interrupted me,” Sanders replied, before going on to note the Trump is “very focused on mental illness” and working with federal agencies to “determine the best path forward.”

She seemed to be making Roberts’ point for him. Trump had shoved her out there. You take care of it, but at least there was this:

Shortly after the briefing, Trump announced he had directed the Department of Justice to propose regulations that would ban bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic guns to be modified to shoot hundreds of rounds per minute.

Trump directed the Department of Justice to do what the Congress had already told them to do, weeks ago, that they were doing already. At the next press briefing she’ll have to explain that. The humiliation never ends.

CNN’s Dan Merica takes it from there:

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, seeking to blunt criticism that the Trump administration has not punished Russia over its 2016 election meddling, cryptically hinted Tuesday that an unpublicized action had already been taken.

President Donald Trump “has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and be tough on Russia,” Sanders said at the Tuesday briefing. “Last week there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days.”

No one is holding their breath for that, and there was this:

She added: “He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined.”

Her defense comes days after special counsel Robert Mueller released a detailed indictment against 13 Russian nationals for allegedly interfering in the 2016 US election.

Trump has been far tougher on Russia than Obama ever was? Merica doesn’t think so:

Obama confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China in 2016, something Trump has yet to forcefully do in meetings with the Russian leader. Trump and Putin discussed election interference in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. Trump later said he thought the Russian leader was earnest when he denied any election meddling.

“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump said in November from Da Nang, Vietnam.

During his last two years in office, Obama imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for election meddling, kicked out 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Kremlin compounds in the United States.

Trump has yet to impose sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last year and missed deadlines to identify which Russian individuals and entities would be on the sanctions list. Last month, the Trump administration decided against implementing the sanctions against Russia and instead published a list of already prominent Russian oligarchs.

Sarah Sanders is confusing Trump with his cabinet:

“It’s important we just continue to say to Russia, ‘Look, you think we don’t see what you’re doing. We do see it, and you need to stop. If you don’t, you’re going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself,'” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview with Fox News earlier this month.

National security adviser H. R. McMaster also said this month – in response to the Mueller indictment – that Russia’s election meddling is “‘now really incontrovertible.”

Even Sanders on Tuesday said: “It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election. It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election, and it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place.”

At the same time, though, Sanders defended Trump’s decision not to impose sanctions earlier this year.

“There’s a process that has to take place, and we’re going through that process,” Sanders said. “That law also says that the countries have to violate something in order for those sanctions to go in place, and that hasn’t necessarily happened.”

Robert Mueller released a detailed indictment against Russian nationals. There were lots of things that had been violated, specifically criminal things, and Philip Bump adds this:

“Let’s not forget that this happened under the Obama administration.”

The interference did indeed take place during the administration of Barack Obama, but there are some significant asterisks that should be applied there.

First, the Obama administration took the highly unusual step of offering a public warning a month before Election Day about Russia’s attempt to compromise the election. That statement was released on Oct. 7 – the same day as the “Access Hollywood” tape and the start of WikiLeaks releasing emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In addition, as The Washington Post reported in December 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed challenging the Russians publicly out of apparent concern it would influence the election. (Last month former vice president Joe Biden confirmed this reporting.) After the election, the Obama administration unveiled a slew of new sanctions against Russia. (Flynn’s guilty plea to Mueller stemmed from his lying to the FBI about a discussion he’d had with Russia’s ambassador about those sanctions.)

Sarah Sanders was defending bullshit, but Hunter S. Thompson did admit that he felt a touch of irrational sympathy for that old bastard, Nixon. The pressure must have been crippling. That Watergate stuff must have been humiliating, but Trump isn’t Nixon, yet. Robert Mueller may be closing in on him, but he hasn’t dropped the hammer, yet – if he ever will. Donald Trump faces other terrible pressures. Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker argue that the terrible pressure is self-generated, and it’s all about Barack Obama:

To hear President Trump tell it, he is tougher than former president Barack Obama. He is smarter than Obama – more shrewd, more effective, more respected. The 45th president is, by his own accounting, superlative to the 44th in almost every way.

In private and in public, while devising policies and while crafting messages, Trump frequently draws flattering comparisons with his predecessor – and he does not let the truth intrude, as was the case Tuesday.

That’s what he shoved Sarah Huckabee Sanders out there to say, and it is an obsession:

On Russia and a host of other issues, aides and advisers say, Trump’s near-compulsion with measuring himself against Obama reflects an innate need to be judged superior to his peers and to have a singular opponent to target.

“For the president, it’s all about performance, and when you look at performances, it’s about comparison to other players, other competitors,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and chief executive of Newsmax. “Who’s the guy everybody’s going to compare him to? His predecessor. He just gets that intuitively, as a business guy and a bottom-line guy.”

Everyone knows this:

Trump has used Obama as a foil since stepping onto the political scene in 2011, when the New York developer-reality television star became the public face of birtherism by advancing a racially tinged falsehood about Obama’s birthplace. Trump’s birther crusade helped fuel his own presidential rise as he surfed the populist wave that distrusted Obama.

The strategy also puts him back into campaign mode, a place where the self-described “counterpuncher” is most comfortable, echoing lines of attack that moved his most fervent supporters to cheers.

“If you watch Trump, he understands that there are two ways to be really tall, and one is to have your opponent be really short,” said Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and a Trump ally. “He spends a fair amount of his time shrinking his opponents.”

“He sees Obama as still one of the people around whom the other side organizes,” Gingrich said. “I don’t think he sees him as a former president. He sees him as a powerful symbol of the left-wing opposition to Trump.”

Trump seizes upon every piece of economic data that he can find to try to portray his presidency as more financially enriching for voters, even though the U.S. economy has been growing for more than nine years and many experts – and voters – credit Obama for playing a role in that trend.

That won’t do, so on Russia, Donald Trump attacks:

Trump’s reaction has been to attack intelligence officials for their conclusions, to fire the FBI director and to block Washington’s efforts to punish Moscow. After Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that his country had tried to influence the campaign, Trump initially said he took him at his word.

Then there are some of Trump’s previous proclamations, including that he has better “chemistry” with Putin than Obama, and that he hopes he and Putin forge a mutually beneficial partnership.

That would be an argument for better living through chemistry – whatever that is in this case – but there’s more to it:

On issues of national security and foreign affairs in general, Trump has a consistent theme: He is stronger and more resolute than Obama, and therefore Americans are safer. He has boasted that the nation’s borders are more secure than under Obama, that the U.S. strategy with North Korea is more effective and that the reach of Islamic State terrorists is diminished.

“We’ve done more against ISIS in nine months than the previous administration has done during its whole administration – by far, by far,” Trump said last October at a gathering of conservative activists.

On some level, Trump’s disdain for Obama is visceral, said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and former political adviser. “He sees himself as being strong, decisive and bold, and he sees Obama as being weak and vacillating and tentative,” Stone said.

And that leads to a bit of absurdity:

Even on more trivial matters, Trump draws unflattering comparisons between himself and his predecessor. Indeed, foreign leaders have become so attuned to Trump’s desire to best Obama that they have literally rolled out red carpets – and planned elaborate state visits – to try to curry favor with his administration.

During a trip to Asia last fall, leaders in Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam all feted and pampered Trump. Chinese President Xi Jinping treated him to an opulent welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, which included cannon fire and a military honor guard. Trump later boasted about his reception at a private meeting of House Republicans, saying only emperors had received the lavish treatment he’d received, according to one person familiar with his comments.

As a candidate, Trump attacked Obama for arriving in China and descending from Air Force One on metal steps that folded down from the belly of the aircraft, rather than from a grander staircase at the upper level of the plane and onto a red carpet.

“Terrible!” Trump tweeted, summarizing the incident.

And there’s this:

Upon becoming president, Trump started to show off the trappings of his job, taking visitors into the Roosevelt Room and the Cabinet Room. He quickly alighted upon a favorite last stop, ushering guests into the Oval Office.

“Obama never used the Oval, but Trump is different,” the president would say, referring to himself in the third person as he often does, according to people who have witnessed the tours.

As his guests marveled at the space, Trump would press them, asking if Obama had ever shown them the West Wing’s inner sanctum.

When he was invariably told no, Trump appeared to beam with pride.

That’s embarrassing. Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn’t the only one oblivious to humiliation. And yes, now anyone can grow up to be president. That’s the problem.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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