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State of the Union

It’s a memorable scene from a memorable movie. Actor Spencer Tracy—portraying a wealthy industrialist running for president—is looking over a fence at the White House. “Needs painting,” he muses.

“I beg your pardon?” says a bearded and bespectacled professor who happens by.

“I say it needs painting,” Tracy says gruffly.

“Needs painting?” The professor is incredulous. “Sir, you’re the kind who’d whitewash the dawn. What colors would you add to a desert sunset, or to the cool green of the sea, or the blue of the sky? Does the Goddess of Liberty need make-up? Do you know who lives in this historic mansion?”

“Yeah,” replies Tracy, annoyed. “The spirit of all those who fought for human dignity lives there: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Paul, Saint Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Plato, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Pasteur, Newton, Galileo, Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette, Garibaldi, Bolivar, Kosciusko. The martyrs, the saints, and the poets. Civilizations past and present. Man’s whole history: his evolution from worm to animal to Einstein, his long search for God, all those things live in that noble dwelling, but I still say it needs paint.”

The professor smiles broadly. At last, someone who understands. “Sir, may I buy you a glass of beer?”

Contemporary as today's headlines, “State of the Union” is a literate comedy-drama from the idealistic mind of filmmaker Frank Capra. Released in 1948, “State of the Union” is chock-full of insights into the dirty business of campaign politics coupled with a host of witty lines. Such as Tracy saying to his wife: “I was alone with those great men. They were happy men, Mary. Do you know why? They had a cause. They had a cause they could die for. Some of them did. I have no cause, Mary. Beating your competitors: no cause to die for. Really isn’t very much to live for. Always me first and everybody else second.”


Which leads us to president-elect, Donald Trump who, like the Spencer Tracy character, is a wealthy businessman who wanted to be president. Now he is, and half the nation convulses at the thought of it. Does Donald Trump feel the spirit of all those who fought for human dignity? Does he feel the enormity of what it means to live in the glass house on Pennsylvania Avenue, within walking distance of Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the newly-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Vietnam War Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery? Judging by his humble acceptance speech at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning and his equally humble comments after meeting with President Barak Obama in the White House on Thursday, it seems he does.

For the half of the nation who did not vote for Donald Trump and believes he will be a disaster as president, he may surprise us. He’s a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He's shrewd in a way Lincoln was shrewd, and he has a tremendous need to succeed. True, he has a great deal to learn about governing: he’s never served on a city council, never been a mayor, or even a governor. That’s the downside. The upside is he’s a quick learner. He will do whatever needs doing to succeed, even in seeking the counsel of President Obama, as he has admitted he would. Having been elected, he’s now a member of the world’s most exclusive club, the President’s Club. The members constitute a clandestine brotherhood with access to information and secrets that few of us have imagined (read “The Secret Government” by Bill Moyers).

Trump is a populist, the first since William Jennings Bryan to run for president, and a Republican. He’s no Lincoln, no Teddy Roosevelt, no Eisenhower, and no Reagan, but he wants to be—badly. He has a burning desire to prove himself, to be respected, admired, even loved. Like Nixon, he’s thin-skinned—quick to take the bait and lash out—and he’s mean-spirited and vindictive. Unlike Nixon, he can be quick to forgive.

Our new commander-in-chief is committed to an aggressive agenda—creating new jobs and higher salaries, building a wall, stopping Muslims from entering the country, deporting eleven million illegal immigrants, putting an immediate stop to racial violence in our cities (while ignoring gun control), replacing Obama Care with something better, paying off the national deficit (if given two terms), and threatening to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Can he do all of these things? Not a chance. Can he do one or two? Perhaps, if world events don’t overwhelm him, as it did to president George W. Bush.


Even with the benefit of a Republican House and Senate, Trump has a very small window to achieve anything of consequence—as little as 100 days. In two years another congress will be elected and the Republican majority he now enjoys could very well vanish, just as Obama’s Democratic majority vanished after his first two years in office. We are a democracy, where every two years the deck is reshuffled and the changing of the guard is inevitable. Obama’s domestic and world problems will soon be Trump’s domestic and world problems, with the press weighing in 24/7, and the nation second-guessing his every move. Despite appearances, presidents don’t have a lot of room to move. The American presidency, like the United States itself, is governed by the rule of law. The balance of power so cleverly woven into the American fabric by the founders, checks the moves of the president on all sides. Except in times of national emergency, Trump will need approval from others to achieve his goals.

While Trump will have no trouble dealing with a pragmatist like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he may find it difficult dealing with a doctrinaire conservative like House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump is a deal maker—that’s his strength, his calling card, one of the reasons he received so many votes on election day. Party doctrine and party affiliation don’t mean a thing to him (three years ago he was a Democrat). He wants to make deals and will negotiate with whomever is like-minded--Republican, Democrat, Independent, it doesn’t matter. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is deeply conservative and may get in the way of Trump’s take-charge style. It could mean Ryan’s ego is bruised and he digs in his heels. Should that happen, I suspect Trump will revert to the bully-pulpit to rally support to his cause, and Paul Ryan could find himself replaced as speaker.

Don’t be surprised if Trump decides to change course and ignore his campaign pledges. As a New York real-estate developer, that has been his practice. While negotiating deals, many issues are discussed and a multitude of promises made, but once the deal is done, and if it’s not spelled out in the contract, Trump doesn’t feel the slightest compulsion to carry them out—the art of the deal. That may be the fate of the border wall and of deporting immigrants—costly policies that would absorb his time, deplete his political capital, and stand in the way of the more critical task of creating new jobs and growing the Gross Domestic Product. Trump knows—if he doesn’t deliver on jobs, in four years he will be out of a job. It will not be easy to deliver. Many of the people who voted for Trump had jobs that have been replaced by automation. Jobs having gone overseas are gone forever. The idea that Trump will bring them back is largely a fiction. Higher tariffs are not the answer either, as nearly everything made in America today contains some or nearly all parts that have been produced across the border or overseas. Low tariffs make this possible. Read “Global Car Industry Runs on NAFTA” (Wall Street Journal, Friday, Nov. 11). Despite what Trump has said, immigration of Mexican Americans has been reversed. More Mexicans are heading south to Mexico—where now there are jobs—than are coming north to the U.S. Today’s border-crossing immigrants are coming from South America.


Then there’s the issue of filling upcoming Supreme Court vacancies with conservative justices, as Trump has promised he would. Anyone who’s made a study of judicial appointments knows that once a justice takes his seat on the bench all bets are off. Conservatives can become liberals (Earl Warren) and liberals can become conservatives (Felix Frankfurter). From Thomas Jefferson through Barak Obama, few presidents have not been surprised and even deeply disappointed with how their High Court appointments turned out. Something happens when a justice puts on the black robe. Perhaps they feel the weight of the ages resting on their shoulders, knowing full-well their decisions will be scrutinized for as long as the United States endures—that the decisions they make, and the opinions they write, may very well be overturned and worse—be damned for all time, such as for those justices who voted against granting Dred Scott his freedom. Worse than shameful.

The Supreme Court is the major league of courts and judges, where the nation, posterity, history is watching, scrutinizing—citizens standing in judgement of judges. Does one wish to be viewed as magnanimous, thoughtful, and progressive, with decisions that stand the test of time? Or to be hidebound by doctrine that shows little original thought or consideration for the welfare of others and seldom proves effective or lasting? All of the great justices have been pragmatists and broad-minded, Olympian in their outlook. Their decisions are studied in school, quoted; some have coined immortal phrases that are now chiseled in stone. Is the Constitution a static document to be taken literally, as some believe? Or is it a living document, designed to be adapt to changing needs, to be looked at with fresh eyes, and interpreted to meet current pressing needs? Alexander Hamilton thought so, and so did our greatest chief justice, John Marshall. Indeed, so have all fair-minded justices. And those who haven’t? I think of those justices who ruled that slavery was constitutional, and who ruled as unconstitutional women’s right to vote, child labor laws, state laws designed to protect worker rights, civil rights laws, and so many other decisions that ignore simple human decency and fail to honor the golden rule.

Once seated on the bench, eternity beckons as it now does for Trump, and the great justices respond with ringing decisions that pulse with all that is good in humanity. This is what weighs on Supreme Court justices—the weight of the centuries, of profound wisdom that has shaped our nation and advanced the human condition. Some of Trump’s appointees will surprise us with their commitment to individual rights. Some may disappoint us with decisions that advance a limited view. If they are great men and women, they will address the legal issues of the day and render decisions that advance the welfare of all Americans, north and south, east and west, black and white, men and women, people of faith, and not of faith. Lady Justice is righteous only as her eyes are blindfolded.

There is no final victory in politics. Every two years another election is held. The Republicans scored big this time around. It won’t last. Already the opposition party is making plans for the next election. Democrat or Republican, it’s important to remember the nation succeeds only as the president succeeds. Demonizing the opposition hurts only us, and goes against the Scriptural command to judge not, lest we be judged. Our time on earth is brief, and would be better spent in getting to know our neighbor, of being kind and charitable, merciful and forgiving, ever attentive to the softly spoken words of our better angels.

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