Alan Zendell, October 20, 2017
I looked up coincidence in two dictionaries and found “a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance” and “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” I’m not a big believer in coincidence, which by definition is a rare event. Unless you rely on providence, the more striking coinciding events are, the less likely it is that they really represent a coincidence.
Perhaps yesterday’s speeches by Barrack Obama and George W. Bush which decried the divisive politics of Trumpism really were two random events not causally linked. If that’s true they were the best possible kind of coincidence, unrelated events that shined a light on the damage being done to our democratic values from sources that until recently would have seemed diametrically opposed. What the two former presidents have in common is far more important than what separates them: levels of decency and compassion that are completely foreign to the current resident of the White House and the fact that both have been targets of vicious unrelenting attacks by the very same Mr. Trump.
There’s an opinion column on the CNN website this morning titled, “Why Presidents’ Rebuke of Trump Won’t Matter” (http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/20/politics/donald-trump-barack-obama-george-w-bush-presidents/index.html). It suggests that what Bush and Obama said won’t make any difference because Trump has no respect for either former president and thus their comments will wash off his back unheeded. That may be correct, but it might also miss a more essential point.
Trump’s current public approval rating sits at 38%, while both Gallup and Politico reported as of last June that after two years of Trump’s nonstop ridicule and hyperbolic criticism, Bush’s approval rating had risen to 59% (from a low of 35% when he left office) and Obama’s had climbed to a remarkable 63% five months into the Trump administration. To the extent that the majority of our electorate suffers from voters’ remorse, the words of our two most recent former presidents ought to carry a lot of weight. I was excited to hear both men speak out. Their common threads of bringing people together rather than dividing them and looking outward to the rest of the world rather than retreating into fear-based isolationism made me more optimistic than I’ve felt since Trump was elected.
After leaving office as governor of California, Ronald Reagan adopted the role of gadfly through the vehicle of more than a thousand radio addresses. Reagan understood that even out of office, his popularity gave him a different sort of pulpit, and he used it effectively prior to running for president in 1980. While neither W nor Obama will ever run for president again, Reagan’s example demonstrates the power of a respected, popular voice in times of turmoil.
Whether they coordinate their efforts or not, I believe there is a huge audience of the discontented that hungers for what the two former presidents have to say. Together, they can overcome the seeds of hate and despair that have been planted by Trump and his followers. Together, they can remind us of the American values we grew up with and silence the sounds of racism and xenophobia that have been driving our politics for the past two years. And perhaps more important, as different as these two men’s political beliefs are, they can re-establish the role model of morality and decency that has atrophied under Trump’s leadership. Our children need that. Imagine what growing up under eight years of Trump’s fundamental meanness and lack of moral center could do to them if they don’t have the examples of other leaders of stature who never reduced politics to the depths Trump has.
This isn’t about politics or whether these three presidents have made mistakes in office. Bush and Obama both made some egregious errors during their tenures, but honest errors are quite different from mean-spirited hatefulness. When they were president, I never felt the disgust and embarrassment that I have experienced every day since Donald Trump has taken over the media scene.
The most positive thing I remember about last year’s election (perhaps the only positive thing) was the frequent reminder that our children were watching. They still are, every day. It’s time we changed the tone and content of what they see and hear, and our best hope of that may the re-engagement of Bush and Obama.