When President Harry S. Truman threatened in December 1950 to punch out a Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter’s singing, he wrote the letter in his own hand, affixed his own postage stamp, and did not make it public. Neither did the Post.
But America knew all about it once it had leaked to the Washington News.
“It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” the president wrote …”Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
Public reaction was divided. Some people, Republicans especially, said that what Truman did was terrible. Others, fathers especially, applauded him for sticking up for his daughter.
Actually, the critic, Paul Hume, was a young man, 34, only three years into what became a long and acclaimed career at the Post. When they finally did meet, years later at Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri, they played the piano together.
Truman’s outburst comes to mind with the news of the very public way in which Donald Trump and his shrill White House shill, Kellyanne Conway, reacted to news of a department store chain, Nordstrom, dropping Ivanka Trump‘s branded merchandise.
The so-called president used his personal and White House Twitter accounts to denounce the company for treating his daughter “unfairly.” Conway was on Fox “News” the next day urging people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.
“I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody, you can find it online,” Conway said.
That goes way, way beyond what Truman did, and is far, far worse. Truman involved public resources only to the extent that he was living in the White House when he wrote the letter, and he did not pitch his hissy fit in public. Trump and Conway are using their bully pulpit—a term that they obviously misunderstand—to promote his daughter’s private business. And although Trump as president is exempt from ethics rules that prohibit that, Conway clearly is not.
Those rules—with which Conway, as a lawyer, ought to be familiar–forbid any executive branch employee from using the office “for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relations, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
At least one formal complaint has already been lodged with the Office of Government Ethics.
And here’s what the chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, Richard W. Painter, said about it, quoted in The New York Times:
“The events of the past week demonstrate that there is no intent on the part of the president, his family, or the White House staff to make meaningful distinctions between his official capacity as president and the Trump family business.”
Trump’s staff, he noted, “instead of trying to push him back on this, they’re jumping in this and shilling for the businesses alongside him.”
Can we count on Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, to law down the law to Trump?
Perhaps when pigs are piloting 747s.
There are doubtlessly a lot of people who aren’t bothered by any of this. They’re those who either voted for the new regime, knowing and liking what it would be, or weren’t concerned enough to go and vote. They seem to include the Republicans running the Senate, which has yet to deny Trump anything.
But for the rest of us, which I think is a majority, this is the question:
How can we be expected to respect the office of president when its occupant doesn’t respect it himself?
The regime’s abuse of public office for private gain is far from the worst of it. Trump’s relentless attacks on the media and, now, the judiciary are the worst of it.
None of his predecessors, not even Richard Nixon, were so persistently thin-skinned, petulant, and heedless of the stature the presidency needs and deserves. Trump’s bombastic, childish, vainglorious outbursts are diminishing not only him, but the office.
If it were just about him being a crybaby, that would be bad enough.
But what he is doing—with calculation and malice, and no doubt with Steven Bannon’s encouragement—is to poison the public’s mind against the only two nonpartisan institutions, the courts and the media, that are willing and able to stand in the way of his abuses of power and his incipient dictatorship.
As it happens, the war on the media is a monumental act of ingratitude. Trump wouldn’t be in the White House had television not fawned on his every act and outrage as a candidate, had the newspapers not contrived to put his picture on every Page 1, had the media been willing earlier to call him out on his falsehoods, and had it not given him, in effect, a free ride against Hillary Clinton by portraying her, falsely, as his equal in sleaze.
Trump understood, as they did not, that it did not matter what they said about him so long as they said it.
Now it matters. It matters a lot. The case for impeachment already exists, and it is building hour by hour, day by day.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.