Our Biblically Illiterate, Historically Obtuse President
There’s spiking the ball in the end zone and then there’s President Trump’s idea of how to celebrate a win. After Senate Republicans rejected the impeachment charges cooked up by House Democrats, Trump’s victory lap turned into the equivalent of dancing like Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, throwing the ball at the referee with bad intent, chest-bumping another ref, screaming profanities at an umpire, flipping off the broadcast booth, head-butting an opponent, and going into the stands to punch a heckler. All rolled into one.
About the only thing he didn’t do was moon the opposing team. But there’s still time. Trump was all Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights.” Not the scene where Will Ferrell’s clueless character runs around the track in his underwear mistakenly thinking he’s on fire – let’s be fair, impeachment was a real thing – but very much like the fictional NASCAR driver after he’s won a race.
“I’m the best there is, plain and simple,” says Ricky Bobby channeling Donald John Trump. “I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence. And nobody can hang with my stuff. You know, I’m just a big hairy American winning machine.”
What our real-life big hairy American winning machine did Thursday was crow at a prayer breakfast while questioning the motives and religious faith of the other team and then go to the White House to castigate his critics in locker room language -- while his fellow Republicans cheered him on. It was performance art, perfectly emblematic of the excesses of contemporary popular culture. In pro football, nobody just dances spontaneously after a touchdown anymore. They get half the team to gather in the end zone to mug for the cameras while doing some goofy celebration.
Trump’s buffoonery began, incongruously, at the National Prayer Breakfast where he played the victim. Keynote speaker Arthur Brooks implored the audience to contemplate America’s “national crisis of contempt and polarization” by asking for a show of hands from those “who love somebody with whom you disagree politically.”
Not content to sullenly refuse to raise his hand, the president said he didn’t necessarily agree with Brooks and attacked the integrity of Mitt Romney (“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong”) and the sincerity of Nancy Pelosi. (“Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”)
The idea that Romney did something he “knew” was wrong is absurd. Voting in favor of impeachment certainly didn’t help him politically in Utah. For what it’s worth, his judgment was mistaken, in my view. The pressure Trump exerted on Ukraine’s president was ham-handed and, yes, an abuse of his authority. But not “bribery,” as the Democrats claimed. As for “obstruction of Congress,” that’s not even a thing. Are senators who threaten to filibuster guilty of it? Yet, I wouldn’t think of questioning Mitt Romney’s religious faith. He takes his church seriously. That doesn’t make him right about impeachment, but when he said that he took the oath of office literally – an oath that invokes God – well, it’s a path he’s never veered from.
The attacks on Pelosi were worse. Let’s recall the context in which she said she prays for the president. It was after an armed, unhinged Bernie Sanders supporter tried to murder the Republicans practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Rep. Steve Scalise was grievously wounded in the attack, and members of Congress were reeling.
“We are one family,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told his colleagues. “Every day, we come here to test and challenge each other,” Ryan added. “We feel so deeply about the things we fight for and believe in. At times, our emotions can get the best of us. We are all imperfect. But we do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber.”
To applause from both sides of the aisle, Pelosi, the once and future House speaker lauded Ryan’s sentiments. “You may not know this, my colleagues, but every time I pray, which is very frequently and certainly every Sunday, I pray for all of you -- all of you together,” she said on the House floor.
"In earlier years I used to pray for your happiness, for the fact that we were working together," she said, adding, "Heed the words of President Kennedy in his inaugural address when he said God's work must truly be our own.”
The daughter of a Baltimore congressman, Nancy Pelosi met John F. Kennedy, our only Roman Catholic president, when she was a Catholic college student in Washington. I’ve known Pelosi most of my adult life and have covered her intermittently. I found her speech that day to be perhaps her noblest moment in public life. Invoking Steve Scalise and perhaps remembering the assassinations of two Kennedys, Pelosi went on to explain that she also prays for the safety of public servants in this country. “I pray for Donald Trump, that his presidency will be successful, that his family will be safe,” she said.
Pelosi's restive critics on the secular left weren't thrilled she was praying for anyone, especially this president. Trump added his own voice of unreason to the debate, as he has done before. In December, as impeachment heated up, Sinclair reporter James Rosen raised Pelosi’s hackles by questioning whether she “hates” the president.
In an animated response, Pelosi said then that as a Catholic she doesn’t hate anyone and that she prays for Trump “all the time.” Trump took to Twitter, naturally, where he asserted the Pelosi “just had a nervous fit,” adding that he doesn’t believe her. After he doubled down Thursday, Pelosi told reporters that his remarks were “so completely inappropriate” and “without class.”
“He was talking,” she added, “about things that he knows little about: faith and prayer.”
This assertion seemed self-evident before the man was elected. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t read the Bible, because the Good Book, is, well, a book – and this president boasts that he doesn’t have time to read books at all. In 2016, some Christians blanched when he mentioned “Two Corinthians,” a biblical chapter usually rendered by churchgoers as “second Corinthians.” (This minor gaffe led to the funniest line of a generally humorless campaign. It was uttered by Ted Cruz, who quipped in Iowa, “Two Corinthians walk into a bar …”)
But having a theological ignoramus residing in the Oval Office is no laughing matter. I’d explain it to him this way: Nancy Pelosi isn’t praying for you to “win,” Mr. President. Or be reelected or pass your budget or smite your enemies or “piss excellence.” She’s praying for God to give you wisdom and grace. Instead, we got this Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast:
“We are grateful to the people in this room for the love they show to religion,” he said. “Not one religion, but many religions. They’re brave, they're brilliant, they're fighters, they like people and sometimes they hate people, I’m sorry.”
One problem here is that he’s not sorry. A Christian isn’t supposed to hate his adversaries. A Christian is called to love them. This was the genius of Jesus of Nazareth, whether you are a follower of Christ, or a secular humanist. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is not Christianity. It’s Judaism. What Jesus, who was born a Jew, taught as a Jew, and was crucified as a Jew, preached was this: “Love thy neighbor” is the old law. Good, but it’s not enough. There’s a new law, he told his followers, a harder one. You must also love your enemies and pray for them.
Donald Trump propounds a different creed. Four years before he declared his candidacy for president, he explained this philosophy at a Miss Universe event in Sydney, Australia. “Get even with people,” Trump said then. “If they screw you, screw them 10 times as hard.”
In a way, I suppose this is evidence of Trump’s genius, although perhaps evil genius is a better way to think about it. Here is a thorough rebuttal to everything Christianity stands for -- in merely 10 words.
The Best House
Then it was back to the White House, for more of the same -- a choreographed end zone dance with his Republican teammates. Previewing the event on Fox News, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham correctly predicted that Trump would “talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that.”
“We went through hell, unfairly, did nothing wrong. Did nothing wrong,” Trump said from the East Room. “I’ve done things wrong in my life, I will admit. Not purposely, but I've done things wrong. But this is what the end result is” – and with that he held aloft a copy of The Washington Post, emblazoned with the headline: "Trump acquitted."
“Honey, maybe we’ll frame it,” he quipped to the first lady. “The only good headline I’ve ever had in The Washington Post.” And then he was off and running, settling scores, hurling schoolyard epithets and insults:
Mitt Romney: “Failed presidential candidate [who] can’t stand the fact that he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.”
Adam Schiff: “A corrupt politician … a vicious, horrible person.”
Nancy Pelosi: “A horrible person … I doubt she prays at all.”
James Comey: “A disaster.” “Dirty cops. Bad people.” “Leaking, lying, and everything else.” A “sleazebag.”
The FBI’s leadership: “Scum.”
Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation: “It was all bullshit.”
Impeachment: “A rotten deal done by some very evil and sick people.”
It was all unnecessary, of course. Trump had beat the rap. All he had to do was, well, nothing. The high road should have been plain to see after Pelosi made a spectacle of herself by theatrically tearing up the president’s State of the Union address. Instead, his son and namesake went on social media to call Romney a vulgar word – the same one used by his father on the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording. Daddy Trump’s rhetorical stink bombs were lobbed from a storied room designed by George Washington and White House architect James Hoban to be a “public audience room.”
Taking this literally, Andrew Jackson hosted the mother of all inauguration parties in the East Room. Fifteen years earlier, Dolley Madison ordered that Washington’s huge portrait be removed from the wall there so the British couldn’t get their hands on it.
To maintain morale in the capital, Abraham Lincoln held balls in the East Room during the Civil War. Union soldiers from Kansas had bivouacked on the floor there. Later in the war, Lincoln and his wife waltzed on those same floorboards. Lincoln’s funeral was held in the East Room, with a cross of lilies by his head, close to where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was sitting. Less than a decade later, Grant was seated there again, amid flowers of another sort for a happier occasion -- the wedding of President Grant’s daughter Nellie.
Alice Roosevelt was married in the East Room, too. Harry Truman played his Steinway piano there and told a television audience the story of Dolley Madison rescuing the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.
A more accomplished musician than Truman, conductor and cellist Pablo Casals, accepted Jacqueline Kennedy’s invitation to play the East Room in November 1961. Two decades later, Ronald and Nancy Reagan watched the Dance Theatre of Harlem perform there during a state visit by Margaret Thatcher. Only two years after the Pablo Casals event, JFK’s casket would lay in state there, as Lincoln’s had. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in the East Room. In the ensuing years, state dinners, Medal of Honor ceremonies, and an array of historical events too numerous to count have taken place in that room.
When I was covering the White House early in Bill Clinton’s administration, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush all spoke in the East Room in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Although in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump referred to “ the disastrous NAFTA trade deal,” on a late summer day in 1993, it seemed that having four presidents advocate for it was a case study in bipartisan good government.
There were Ford and Carter, erstwhile adversaries in the 1976 campaign, now close personal friends. George H.W. Bush, who’d lost to Clinton only 10 months earlier, rose to the occasion, too. “I thought that was a very eloquent statement by President Clinton,” Bush said. He then quipped, to general laughter in the audience, “And now I understand why he’s inside looking out and I’m outside looking in.”
The East Room certainly had memories for Jerry Ford. The only U.S. chief executive never to be elected either president or vice president, Ford took the oath of office in that room. “My fellow Americans,” he said famously in the ensuing inaugural address, “our long national nightmare is over.”
This was a reference to the political trauma that had elevated Ford to national office in the first place: Vice President Spiro Agnew copping a nolo contendere plea to bribery charges to stay out of prison; President Nixon resigning in the face of the Watergate scandal. As it happened, Nixon had said farewell to his staff in the East Room earlier the same day.
Embittered and embattled as he was, the outgoing president went graciously. He said the press would report what was said there, but that he didn’t mind, “because they have to call it as they see it.”
Nixon thanked those who’d worked for him “with devotion and dedication” and waxed nostalgic about the White House itself (“This is the best house … this house has a great heart”) and the civil servants who remain there as presidents come and go.
A Bigger Cause
Nixon said he was proud of his cabinet, the sub-cabinet, and White House staff – all of whom came to Washington to serve “a cause bigger than yourself.” He spoke nostalgically about his parents. His father, he said, owned “the poorest lemon ranch in California” before becoming a grocer. “But he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt, regardless of what happens.”
No one will ever write about his mother, Nixon said, but “she was a saint.” He told his staff they could be proud of the work they had done. Speaking apparently to himself as well as his aides, Nixon gave this advice: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
That was a president who had been forced from office by his adversaries. In other words, Richard M. Nixon was far more gracious in defeat than Donald J. Trump was in victory. The mantra of “never be petty,” which Nixon didn’t always practice but knew enough to impart, has been replaced by a new law: “Screw them harder. Make them pay.”