In less than 24 hours, Americans (and the world) got to see what presidential bearing, gravitas and demeanour really are – as well as their exact antonym. It was both heartbreaking and terrifying, all on the same roller coaster ride. This writer rose at 4am in order to catch Barack Obama’s speech live – and then stayed stolidly in front of the television for much of the day to watch the eventual house on fire that came later.
On Tuesday evening, Barack Obama delivered a deeply personal farewell address to the nation, live before some 12,000 people gathered in an arena in downtown Chicago. Presidential farewell speeches have typically been delivered from the Oval Office of the White House via television, sans a studio audience, or even, as in the early years of the nation, simply delivered in written form. But, at Obama’s event, the emotional tenor was so bittersweet – yet still-optimistic – that it almost seemed as if the president and his crowd would all break out into nostalgic songs redolent of all the battles both won and lost during Obama’s eight years as president. There were tears and cheers.
Obama chose to set out the benchmarks of his administration’s success in bringing a nearly prostrate economy back to health, even as he argued his presidency could not have delivered the sum of all healing for all the divides that still afflict Americans, often divided by class and race. However, he exhorted his crowd – and it truly was “his” crowd – that, going forward, it was the duty of every citizen to participate actively in efforts to achieve a more just, more equal, more ethical nation as the right answer to the great tasks that remain undone in 2017’s America.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in a night of emotional “highs” was the president’s quoting of Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, when Finch had described the striving for better justice in saying:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Obama implored his audiences – in the arena, via television, and among those who will watch or read the speech in the days and weeks ahead – to reach out across the partisan, racial, and economic divides and find ways to make the country a better land for all. Having the concession to sell tissues and handkerchiefs would have been a real winning opportunity on that night.
The next morning, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee got to hear Rex Tillerson make himself available for questioning in order that he could be confirmed for the post of Secretary of State. Senate committees carry out hearings on all senior presidential nominations. They then send their recommendation to the entire Senate, and the final vote is then taken to approve (or reject) the respective nominees. While there are numerous questions about Tillerson’s personal relationship with senior Russian officials, given his cogent responses to questioning about US-Russia relations as well as many other topics, at least his nomination for the Trump cabinet seems assured.
However, confirmation hearings for several other nominees were postponed at the last minute, as their required vetting paperwork – detailed financial disclosure documentation most especially – was late in coming to the Government Ethics Office, or had only been submitted in part by this week. Such sloppiness on the part of the Trump transition process seems likely to make it unlikely Donald Trump will have a complete, confirmed cabinet on the job by the time he takes the oath of office on January 20.
But then there was President-elect Donald Trump’s press conference on Wednesday morning as well. Presumably it was meant to pick up the slack of his having failed to have such a quotidian event for six solid months – rather, doing innumerable appearances on the various talking heads programmes on the Trump-worshipping Fox News channel instead. His office had announced that the president-elect would be setting out his plans to move away from his entertainment/hotel/office space/golf course business empire, as he became president, in this media conference. But, by Wednesday morning, there were also several other issues jostling for attention.
In addition to a description of plans designed to mark his exit from the business world, the whole question of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, apparently at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin; Trump’s continuing love affair with Putin, and the president-elect’s twisting and turning to avoid accepting the fact of this intrusion into the American electoral system, had all taken greater urgency. In addition, even after Trump had received a classified briefing by the joint heads of American intelligence agencies, he still continued to evade accepting their conclusions about Russian culpability, lest it besmirch his still-blossoming bromance with Putin.
But then word had leaked out that there had been an addendum to the written briefing delivered to Trump and the incumbent president last week. That addendum had summarised some rather sordid but still unsubstantiated charges that the Russians had a colourful file on the president-elect from his times in Russia, including, it was said, dalliances with prostitutes, among other imaginative forms of bad behaviour. A rather full version of this had been published by the Buzzfeed blog (although not by other news sites) and this, in turn, had set The Donald ablaze with outrage and some serious high dudgeon. And not without some cause, given the salaciousness of the charges. Taken together, these events set the stage for a press conference that might well have been scripted by the late Hunter Thompson, after a substance-fuelled late evening. Really.
Trump started at a nearly normal pitch at first, but he then switched into a much higher gear with some ad lib, slash-and-burn attacks – yet again – on Hillary Clinton, on the Democratic National Committee for allowing itself to be spied on, on CNN and other fraudulent, fake, false, lying media outlets, and, inevitably, on the terrible government officials who had carried out dreadful trade agreements, the evil businesses who want to move abroad to lower cost realms, and, naturally, the politicised intelligence agencies that had leaked all this stuff about him being a gormless patsy for the Russians. “How dare they? You just wait until I’m in charge, you conniving bunch of dirty rats!” you could almost hear him think aloud.
A friend in Washington watching it all (who probably should remain anonymous) quickly banged out his record of this hallucinogenic performance. Describing those seeming stream-of-consciousness Trumpian words, our correspondent had written, “Big Pharma. F - 35. He is talking about producing airplanes cheaper. His eye sockets are white violet. ‘I look very much forward to the inauguration ... very elegant ... very special ... we’re gonna get massive crowds...’”
Our correspondent noted Trump’s presentation seemed almost tailor-made for the Ritalin generation. (Parents of teenagers will understand.) Along the way, Trump chose to have a loud verbal smackdown with CNN reporter Jim Acosta for working for 'a media outlet that delivers false news', as Trump even declined to listen to Acosta’s question.
As soon as the questions moved to the Russian saga, Trump was truly off to the races with, “These meetings are classified ... it is a disgrace [it was leaked] ... it is all phony stuff ... sick people and they put that crap together. ... As far as hacking I think it was Russia but ... but ...” And yes, the president-elect fairly shouted out the word “crap” to the universe. Goodbye soaring rhetoric; hello the locker room and wet towel snapping for the next four years.
Somehow, this led to an attack on Hillary Clinton for not firing campaign chair John Podesta for writing some indiscreet e-mails, even as the real key to the hacking was the Democrats’ inability to maintain rigorous computer defences, unlike his boys in the GOP. And then, somehow, he veered off onto an entirely different riff, accusing the Obama administration of creating ISIS by leaving Iraq too soon. At least we didn’t get the rebirth of birtherism.
That led us to an explanation as to why he, Donald Trump, could never be caught in a honey trap, because as he had told his staffers, “you are probably going to have cameras ... cameras that are so tiny ... I was in Moscow at the Miss Universe pageant ... I told lots of people to be careful [presumably meaning advice not to have drunken sex with strangers or prostitutes or beauty pageant wannabes in their hotel rooms]. Does anybody really believe that story? Plus I am a germophobe.”
Then, finally, the ostensible purpose of the media conference. Trump explained he would turn over all his businesses to his two sons in a kind of less than blind trust, where the whole untidy family of companies would have an arms-length distance from the pater familias. At that, a sharp, wise-to-the-ways of Washington and New York attorney, Sheri Dillon, was called on to outline the entire arrangement and she pointed to a large heap of folders on a nearby table as evidence of the complexity and comprehensiveness of the whole deal. To prove the honest earnestness of this financial sleight of hand, Dillon explained that any profits from foreigners staying in Trump hotels would, in future, go to the US Treasury rather than those well-tailored Trump pockets.
However, the usual arrangement of an actual blind trust was dismissed because, well, the real value of the Trump businesses is really in his name and brand. If someone else ran those enterprises without his astonishing aura hovering over it all, all those assets would be sharply devalued and that simply wouldn’t be fair to our president-elect and his children. By this time, viewers could almost hear Dillon mouthing the idea that it simply wasn’t fair that someone had forced Donald Trump to pick up the presidency, at such great risk to his wealth.
This is going to be such a tiring slog until 2020. If we survive it. Really.