Late last year, in anticipation of Presidents Day, C-SPAN compiled its 17th annual poll of American historians to determine a ranking of our country’s 44 previous presidents.
Don’t tell President Trump, but his name wasn’t on the list, which came out Friday and is, not surprisingly, headed by the big three in this order: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In defense of Trump, the poll was taken before he took office, so he can’t be rated yet. But I’m sure that before all is said and done he’ll have put together a sterling record that will enable him to slip in just ahead of James Buchanan, currently ranked last.
Buchanan was the president just before Lincoln, and he’s been denigrated for his failure to prevent the Civil War. Whereas Trump, by contrast, seems determined to start a new one.
Historians rated presidents in ten categories, including “public persuasion,” “crisis leadership,” and “moral authority.”
My guess is Trump will have trouble in that last category. That is, unless future historians are willing—much like swing voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—to look past his “pussy-grabbing” behavior.
I don’t want you to think C-SPAN’s ranking system is perfect. Somehow George Washington was ranked 13th in the category “pursued justice for all,” even though he was a slave owner.
Say this about Trump: at least he doesn’t own slaves.
As you can see, I’m really bending over backward to say something nice about the guy.
There’s no category in the presidential ranking system for media relations, which is good for Trump, as he’s essentially waged war on the whole concept of freedom of the press. In one recent tweet, Trump said the media was “the enemy of the American People!”
Which reminds me: I still can’t get over last Thursday’s press conference at the White House, during which Trump ripped into Jake Turx, a 30-year-old, mild-mannered reporter from Ami Magazine, an Orthodox Jewish weekly based in Brooklyn.
When he began his question, Turx tried to distance himself from the rest of the rabble in the White House press corps by assuring Trump that “despite what some of my colleagues may have been reporting, I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic.”
Having softened Trump with praise, he got down to business.
“However, what we are concerned about, and what we haven’t really heard being addressed, is an uptick in anti-Semitism, and how the government is planning to take care of it,” Turx continued. “There’s been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to . . . ”
At which point, Trump cut him off—basically telling him to shut up and sit down.
“So here’s the story, folks,” Trump declared. “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your life. Number two, racism—the least racist person.”
Huh? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Shakespeare once put it.
The C-SPAN poll doesn’t rank presidents based on their anti-Semitism, but President Richard Nixon also had issues with Jews. Basically, Nixon thought they were part of a massive conspiracy—which supposedly also included the Kennedy family and other east-coast elites—to bring him down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Nixon era as the Trump era unfolds. I’m old enough to have sharp memories of the early 70s. Sometimes it feels as if I’m reliving those years, especially in regards to the still-developing drama of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and what he may or may not have said to the Russian ambassador in the days before Trump took office.
Apparently, the FBI got wind of the conversation while listening in on the ambassador’s conversations. I’m sure it’s not a big surprise that we’re spying on the Russians, just as I presume the Russians are spying on us.
After the story broke, Flynn resigned. Trump is now railing at the unnamed intelligence sources who leaked the bit about Flynn’s call—though they may have done everyone a favor by forcing out a security adviser who thought he could have a private conversation with the Russian ambassador without the FBI and/or CIA listening in.
The real issue is whether Flynn assured the ambassador that Trump would end the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the Russians for allegedly hacking into Democratic National Committee computers during the presidential campaign, in order to leak embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton.
Now everyone wants to know the answer to an updated version of a Nixon-era question in regards to Flynn’s conversations with the Russians: What did the president know and when did he know it?. (CNN and others reported that Trump knew that Flynn had allegedly misled people in his administration two weeks before Flynn resigned.)
So here’s another echo of the Nixon years: This isn’t the first time in my life that federal agents have selectively leaked intel to reporters to bring down a Republican president.
As opposed to selectively leaking intel to reporters on behalf of a Republican president, as some still-unnamed administration officials did with the New York Times‘s Judith Miller, to scare Americans into supporting President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Or as FBI director James Comey did when he notified Congress about his renewed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails less than two weeks before Election Day. Didn’t hear any Republicans complaining about that, either.
Back in the early 70s, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were abetted in their investigation of Nixon’s Watergate scandal by an anonymous Washington insider they nicknamed “Deep Throat.”
In their 1974 book All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein led us to believe that Deep Throat was a righteous public servant who was sickened by Nixon’s outrageous Constitutional violations, including spying on the DNC.
At the time, I was a young and exceedingly impressionable college student. And when I read their book and saw the subsequent movie, I decided that I too wanted to be a crusading investigative journalist who had clandestine predawn meetings in shadowy underground parking garages with super-secret insiders giving me the scoop about what was really going down. Just as Woodward (Robert Redford in the movie) had with Deep Throat.
But in 2005, Vanity Fair revealed that Deep Throat was a man named Mark Felt, the number two operative at the FBI. And it turned out that there was nothing particularly noble about Felt’s reasons for leaking damaging information about Nixon. Apparently, Felt was upset that Nixon hadn’t appointed him as FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972.
By the time I learned about Deep Throat’s real motives, I was already more than 25 years into a career that had been at least partly inspired by what Kellyanne Conway might now call “alternative facts.” Alas, it was too late for me to turn back.
Ironically, Nixon and his top aides had pretty much figured out that Felt was Deep Throat almost from the moment Woodward and Bernstein began churning out their scoops. During a conversation on October 19, 1972—which the president secretly taped—Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, speculated about Felt’s motivations.
Haldeman: Maybe he’s tied to the Kennedy set.
Nixon: Is he Catholic?
Haldeman: I don’t know.
Nixon: Find out.
Haldeman: I think he’s Jewish.
Nixon: Christ! Mark Felt is certainly a Jewish name. Well, that could explain it too.
For the record, Felt wasn’t Jewish. In any event, rereading those old Nixon transcripts, I find it almost reassuring to recall that this likely isn’t the first time we’ve had a deceitful anti-Semite in the White House.
For what it’s worth, Nixon’s ranked 28th on C-SPAN’s list of great presidents. At the rate Trump’s going, I doubt he’ll even come close to that. v