Doing the Unexpected

President Richard Nixon meets China’s Chairman Mao Zedong.

Presidents are often remembered for playing against type: Richard Nixon going to China is the classic example. One of the strengths of the great American experiment is that presidents — Nixon and others — often have defied expectations. Often elected — or placed on the ballot — on the basis of a set of ideas or policies, presidents frequently have changed course and taken a different path. Other presidents are remembered for exceeding expectations, or rising to the moment. Abraham Lincoln — who many thought a second-rate mediocrity before the Civil War — rose to the challenge to become the man who saved the Union and freed the slaves. The speech-challenged George W. Bush showed surprising eloquence in defense of Muslims following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

President Donald Trump meets with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss immigration reform.

It is worth contemplating the nature of the American presidency and the 44 men who have held the post as we enter the second year of number 45’s tenure. A vile, crass, uneducated, and uninterested man, Donald Trump has proven as bad — perhaps even worse — than many feared. Elected as a virulent — even racist and xenophobic — opponent of immigration, Trump now has to decide whether he will pander to his base and maintain a hardline stance on immigration or whether he will run counter to his message and adopt a more conciliatory approach, especially regarding the Dreamers, immigrants brought illegally to this country as children by their parents.

Trump has been all over the issue, sometimes favoring helping the Dreamers, other times showing little sympathy for their plight. While the Senate may well devise a compromise to allow many, if not all, of the Dreamers to stay and become citizens, there is little reason to think the House will go along. And, there is even less reason to think the president would use the power of his office and the bully pulpit to drag recalcitrant Republicans in the lower chamber to a compromise.

Still, history may provide some lessons. It is doubtful that the president is a serious student of history, and it is equally doubtful that he could learn much from it, since he has demonstrated little interest in learning anything. Among Trump’s most obvious character traits are his certainty that he is smart and his unwillingness to recognize that there is much he does not know.

President Harry Truman

Many post-World War II presidents are remembered for doing the unusual. Harry Truman, an accidental president from a border state who showed little previous interest in the plight of African Americans, changed once in office. In 1948, Truman issued Executive Orders banning segregation in the armed forces and ensuring fair employment in the civil service. Even more startling is the example of Lyndon Johnson — another accidental president. Johnson, from a southern state, was chosen by John Kennedy to be his running mate to balance the ticket. Johnson was a profane man known to use racial epithets, yet his presidency witnessed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, two of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. Johnson was not a passive bystander in the legislative process. Rather, he applied his formidable legislative skills — honed while he served as Senate Majority Leader — to cajole recalcitrant senators of both parties — both Northerners and Southerners alike — into supporting the measures.

President Dwight Eisenhower delivering his Farewell Address to the nation.

Dwight Eisenhower surprised many with his warnings about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” Many thought the former leader of Allied forces in Europe would bow out with a nostalgic “old soldier” speech reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s good-bye. Instead, Eisenhower cautioned the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” While Eisenhower’s exhortation did not affect American policy, few could ignore such a warning from a war hero.

But, It was Richard Nixon wjp most changed American policy in a significant and surprising way. A noted cold warrior, Nixon rose to fame as a red-baiter, charging his opponents for House and Senate seats with Communist sympathies. He cemented his national reputation with allegations that Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was a Soviet spy. Known to many as “Tricky Dick,” Nixon became the first and only president to resign in disgrace. But, before his ignominious end, Nixon turned American policy toward China around, traveling to the Communist nation America had shunned for more than two decades. Nixon ended the fiction that the remnants of Nationalist China on Taiwan represented the Chinese nation, recognizing the regime in Beijing as the legitimate representative of China. Perhaps, only a politician with such impeccable anti-Communist credentials as Nixon could have performed such a volte-face.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan

Similarly, Ronald Reagan achieved national recognition, in part, on the strength of his anti-Communism crusade. During his first term he dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire and spoke of leaving “Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history,” a comment Soviet leaders took as a direct threat. Yet, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Communist Party and reached out to Western democracies, Reagan proved a willing partner. The two men negotiated significant arms control treaties and, in the words of a Gorbachev spokesman, “buried the Cold War.” Like Nixon, Reagan was a cold warrior willing to seize an opportunity to change policy, and he ended up making history.

Can Trump do something similar on immigration: That is, abandon his hardline rhetoric and agree to a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers? Trump is not known as a president willing to buck his core supporters among voters or in Congress. Yet, as a man with few, if any, fixed views, perhaps a change on immigration policy is possible, not only regarding the Dreamers, of whom he has spoken sympathetically on occasion, but on all contentious immigration issues.

History tells of many precedents regarding past presidents, if only the current president will listen.

Posted January 26, 2018

Comments are closed.