We are about to experience politics “as seen on TV.” Here comes the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, the George Foreman Grilling Machine, and spray-on hair in a can. And now we’ve got two candidates who should never get within 50 yards of the White House about to debate.
The late George Carlin joked (but wasn’t really joking).
"Somewhere out there is the world's worst doctor. The scariest part is that someone has an appointment with him tomorrow."
— George Carlin (@TheGeorgeCarlin) September 23, 2013
No, the scariest part is that one of Clinton or Trump will be elected president on November 8. Since we should take the advice of George Santayana, who wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we must ask, “does it really even matter who wins?” Can anyone really can be president?
Let’s examine that. Look at the job requirements: You don’t write your own reports or speeches. You don’t cook, clean, wash dishes, move furniture, or move your own chess pieces. You don’t buy your own clothes, or do laundry, or any of the proletarian things that the hoi polloi does. You just have meetings, tell people what you think–or lie to them–sign some papers, and go on television.
I’ve been told that meteorologists are professional liars, and that anyone can be a weather person. Just stand in front of a green wall and point at ephemeral maps while staring into a TV camera and reading from a teleprompter. That’s what it takes to be president–the national weather person. You don’t have to be right, you just have to give a decent looking forecast.
Some conspiracy kooks think Hillary has a body double. She could be terminally ill and still be president. She could die in office and do a Moon Over Parador thing. I mean they’ve got autopens that can sign bills with the force of law; Obama has done it. She doesn’t even need to show up until her aides decide to have the state funeral.
The empty presidency works even better for Donald Trump. Especially if Trump is a sociopath, operating without any conscience. (And many serious people think he is: here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Truly, Trump could spend his days focused on whatever little detail catches his attention, to the exclusion of everything else, and the government will still run.
If anyone can be president, this is good news for America. We can watch the clash of the titans from the safety of our living rooms, knowing that whoever wins won’t make a whit of difference. We just know that stuff will happen in America and we’re all going to suffer. What does it matter whose name is on the White House napkins?
I would actually prefer Mel Brooks or Richard Dreyfuss. I’d prefer a disconnected empty suit (or pantsuit) in the Oval Office to either Hillary or Donald. But neither one will give us that gift. To my horror, they are actually going to try to do things in office.
Hillary has 1,460 items on her to-do list, one for each day in office. Most of them involve some kind of revenge. She’s accumulated lots of names on her vengeance list in the last 38 years. Every political appointee, every federal agency will be bent to the force of her will to carry that out.
In a Hillary White House, every day will be filled with scandal, and it won’t matter one bit, because her logo will turn 90 degrees counterclockwise and become a giant middle finger to America. Every policy initiative will be shoved down our throats in an orgy of retribution as the nanny-in-chief tells us what’s best. There will be no pomp, ceremony, or respect for the office–just daily maniacal laughter as she checks items off her hit list.
Hillary Clinton knows what it’s like to be president, and relishes with dark delight every moment she plans to spend giving what-for to her enemies. It’s truly chilling to contemplate.
But Donald Trump–if only he could be The Apprentice version of president; the reality show version of The West Wing, without the actual responsibility. Instead, what we’d get is the political reincarnation of Jimmy Carter. In 1979, James Fallows, who was Carter’s speechwriter for two years, lamented his fatal flaws in The Atlantic.
One is sophistication. It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that Carter and those closest to him to him took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.
The second is the ability to explain his goals and thereby to offer an object for loyalty larger than himself.
The third, and most important, is the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. Carter often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time. He did not devour history for its lessons, surround himself with people who could do what he could not, or learn from others that fire was painful before he plunged his hand into the flame.
Carter was self-assured of his own intelligence and ability. He was a micromanager, and an emotional, petty dictator. He (and America) would have been better off were he an empty suit. Actually Trump is even worse, because nobody has yet proven The Donald is “a good man.”
Douglas Brinkley summed up Carter in “The Unfinished Presidency.” When Carter lost in a landslide to Reagan, he conceded while the polls in California were still open.
White House press secretary Jody Powell had tried to get the soon-to-be ex-president to delay his speech until eleven o’clock Eastern time, when the California polls would close, but Carter didn’t want anyone to think he was sulking in the White House and insisted, “It’s ridiculous. Let’s go and get it over with.” Many in the Democratic establishment were furious with Carter for conceding more than an hour before the polls closed on the West Coast, thus hurting other Democratic candidates in the Pacific time zone. “What in God’s name is wrong with you people?” Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill fumed by phone from Boston to Carter’s congressional liaison, Frank Moore. When Moore told O’Neill that Carter just wanted to “get it over with,” damn the western Democrats, the speaker exploded with rage, yelling, “You guys came in like a bunch of jerks, and I see you’re going out the same way.” Representative Tom Foley of Washington State put it more succinctly: “It was vintage Carter at its dead worst.”
This will be the Trump presidency. He will be consumed with looking good, micromanaging, and when he fails, he’ll just say “to hell with it.” Just look at Brinkley’s take-down of Carter and compare it to Trump:
* He had no base in the Democratic party and few friends in the federal government, making it difficult for him to achieve his purposes.
* Despite his intelligence, he had a vindictive streak, a mean streak, that surfaced frequently and antagonized people,
* He became so absorbed in detail he never was able to articulate a coherent public policy, foreign or domestic.
* Several failures during his term were not his fault, but nevertheless hurt him politically: inflation, the hostages, the blundered rescue attempt….
* The extravagant promises in his campaign generally were not kept. Many could not have been kept and he should never have made them.
* And [he exhibited some] examples of excruciatingly bad taste, such as telling an insulting and unfunny joke [about Montezuma’s revenge] at a dinner in Mexico City.
From the very start, my chief complaint about Trump is that he’d be a terrible president. He would be Jimmy Carter without the moral fiber of a Christian.
The first debate between Clinton and Trump is coming up in 12 days. We will likely see Clinton playing to Republicans a la Reagan, and trying to outmaneuver Trump, with Trump trying to get Clinton to become the dour old woman.
Fallows still writes for The Atlantic, and penned a nearly 13,000-word essay on this one debate.
Donald Trump will almost certainly insult her directly, about her own crookedness and about the sins of her husband. This was the heart of his strategy during the primary debates—“I call him ‘Little Marco’ ”; “More energy tonight. I like that” to Bush—and is his instinct. She will answer those quickly and firmly—“My husband and I have been through a lot, as the world well knows. But after 41 years, we are still together”—and then move back to whatever policy point she wants to make. One way to describe this strategy is Martin O’Malley’s. “She has to be direct and tough right back to him, but then quickly pivot to what matters for the country,” he said. “It’s not enough just to disqualify this guy, since he’s survived remarks that in other times have been automatically disqualifying. She also needs to say what the election is about.”
Another way to describe this strategy is to use a phrase from Michelle Obama’s convention speech: When they go low, we go high.
To my reportorial sorrow, I’ve learned over the years that good debate-prep teams are very closemouthed. So exactly what the Clinton team is planning, I can’t say directly. But I can guess. I expect that we’ll hear Clinton turning Trump’s most inflammatory quotes against him, as she has already done in her ads. I expect that she’ll try to use every foray and attack by him as the premise for a “Let’s talk about the real issues” response. And I will be watching to see whether a candidate who, as a female Democrat, might seem a clear contrast to Ronald Reagan can nevertheless match the emotional victory he won in the 1980 debate, by seeming affably comfortable with herself and convincingly positive about the prospects of the nation under her leadership.
It will make for some great television. But as we all have heard from our parents, when you order something “as seen on TV” you always end up disappointed and $20 poorer.