David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
Ronald Reagan began the tradition of placing in the Oval Office desk – fashioned from the oak planks of the HMS Resolute – a personal and inspiring note to the presidential successor. The handwritten letter George H.W. Bush left for Bill Clinton in 1993 is especially poignant in 2020: “There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair."
But as anyone who has tried to assemble a desk from IKEA knows, inspiration and a do-it-yourself inclination are not enough to put it all together – you need to read the instructions.
The United States presidency actually has its own instruction manual, which is contained within the study of history. Just as one must do with IKEA, it is essential to read all of the instructions – not just part of them.
This is even true for iconoclastic presidents such as Donald Trump, who otherwise might have known that his comment, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” dates back to an incendiary remark from the Miami police chief during a news conference in 1967.
Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush were voracious consumers of presidential biographies during their White House years, and Barack Obama convened sessions of presidential historians. Had Mr. Trump consulted George C. Edwards III, a distinguished Texas A&M University presidential scholar, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he would have heard what I did when I called the professor at his home in College Station, Tex.: “Presidents throughout history emphasize calming people and trying to end riots rather than making threats. They don’t lay blame. They show a grown-up approach,” he said.
The instruction manual for Mr. Trump’s current crises – China and COVID-19, racial violence and presidential rage – consists of elementary knowledge of American history. But ignoring even the basics – and there is every indication they are being ignored – there are shortcuts available. The President need only rely less on his instincts than on the texts of presidential statements past. There he could learn, as University of New Hampshire historian Ellen Fitzpatrick told me, that historically, “presidents try to de-escalate rather than to escalate.’’
So here is what presidential critics would call the Idiot’s Guide to the White House, but what I simply call a historical studies cheat sheet.
First, “the Roosevelt Impulse.” The president who led America through the Great Depression and the Second World War was, like Mr. Trump, the beneficiary of inherited wealth. But he also possessed an instinctive common touch. FDR’s first inaugural address, famous for its "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” rhetoric, had an even more evocative line for the coronavirus period, and is available for poaching by Mr. Trump: “We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike.”
Next, "the Johnson Treatment.” As senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson had a habit of leaning his giant face into a colleague’s personal space while imploring him to vote for an amendment to a bill – unsanitary behaviour unsuited to these coronavirus times. But when violence flared in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 1965, the 36th president made remarks the 45th president could appropriate verbatim, though substituting “black” for “Negro”:
“If there is one thing I think we have learned from the civil rights struggle, it is that the problem of bringing the [black] American into an equal role in our society is more complex, and is more urgent, and is much more critical than any of us have ever known.”
Lastly, we have “the Bush Instinct.” George H.W. Bush may have played into racial discord in 1988 – he knew his campaign’s Willie Horton advertisement portraying a black criminal was a disgraceful digression – but he also knew when presidential leadership required presidential empathy. A man whose Republican nomination acceptance speech spoke of a “kinder, gentler nation" applied that ethos to the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles: "Those terrible scenes stir us all to demand an end to gratuitous violence and brutality. Law-enforcement officials cannot place themselves above the law that they are sworn to defend.”
These are the low-hanging fruit of the White House history gardens – reading ripe for the picking. Mr. President, gather ye rosebuds of wisdom while ye may.
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