Because of the weight and far-reaching import of their words and actions, modern American presidents have all wisely paid close attention to what they say and do. And they process good advice with their own instincts on both courses.
All but one.
Every commander in chief makes revealing mistakes, of course. Barack Obama thought his nation’s motto was E Pluribus Unum and Austrians speak Austrian.
But Donald J. Trump is taking this to a whole new level. He seems to confuse headstrong with decisive. And he is so certain of his own keen judgment and skills that he regularly rejects the advice of the skilled professionals he’s hired to advise him.
The latest of many such instances involves the late Sen. John McCain. We hire politicians to grease the wheels of our democracy, to help with the sticky problems we cannot solve by ourselves. Not to make new ones to distract us from yesterday’s problems.
I’ve worked for politicians who absolutely could not stand another individual in public life. Detest is the word. But the public never knew it. In fact, even the other person may not have known it.
Because the best politicians have the self-discipline to work with or around others to get results. Frustrating for media, of course, which thrives on conflict. But such behavior avoids totally unnecessary fights and troubles, if only out of mutual self-interest. They might need each other at some future time.
Clearly, Trump and McCain disliked each other. Trump attended a military prep school and received numerous draft deferments. McCain descended from a long line of military family members and graduated from the Naval Academy albeit, he would joke, at the bottom of his class.
Back during his presidential campaign, Trump said McCain was no hero for getting shot down over North Vietnam and serving nearly six torturous years as a POW. It was a needless shot. They weren’t competing.
Do you remember McCain’s reply at the time? Neither do I. There was none.
Later, the senator did slip in some shots about people with medical deferments. And then came McCain’s pivotal vote on repealing Obamacare, a decisive emperor-like thumbs-down on the Senate floor. He denied the vote was personal.
Trump supporters will say his actions and tweets are all part of a grand strategy. If so, it’s a flawed one because he so often must back off of it. And it appears to reflect a chaotic White House inner sanctum.
So, Trump and McCain dislike each other. After enduring a 14-month-long struggle with an aggressive brain cancer that was lost from the very beginning, McCain dies.
Trump had the White House flag lowered on the day of his death and the next 24 hours. That is literally what federal law requires for the passing of a member of Congress.
Here’s where Trump’s lack of discipline showed. Tradition holds that flags stay lowered until burial as a sign of respect. Trump’s staff, led by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, argued in vain to follow tradition.
Having held a similar position for a government chief executive, I can confidently report that a large part of that job – perhaps more than half – is avoiding potholes, anticipating largely public relations problems and shaping actions and statements to avoid them.
Trump’s flag decision was not a pothole. It was a sinkhole. Even people who disliked Maverick McCain saw it as ungracious and disrespectful. C’mon, the man is dead. It costs nothing to be polite.
Turmoil was such that two days later, after Sanders continued to argue the case, Trump reversed himself, lowered the flag and packaged his retreat with other gestures to accommodate and honor the family’s memorial arrangements.
Now, in the scheme of national history, this flag incident is unimportant. What is important is that the man who claimed he’s not a professional politician really showed he isn’t.
After 84 weeks as president, the man with the historic election upset still hasn’t learned to subvert his egotistical instincts and take the advice of the professional staff he boasted would be the best in history.
This was not Trump’s first such unnecessary self-inflicted wound. Unfortunately for his presidency and the country, it’s unlikely to be the last.
Trump was elected by millions who wanted someone totally different as president. They got him, thanks to his skill at detecting their fears and anger and his opponent’s historic ineptness.
In 26 months, Americans will have another chance to pass judgment on Trump. Much of his 43 percent base may well stick by him. Trump knows this and acts like that’s enough. It isn’t.
Trump’s next Democratic opponent cannot possibly be as clumsy as his last, though one should never underestimate the ability of ambition to corrupt actions. But if Trump keeps searing into Americans’ memory his self-destructive incidents like this stupid flag imbroglio, it won’t likely matter.