Trump sets a new bar for presidential paranoia

Gareth Milner via Flickr

I can fix the time. It’s penciled in the president’s daily diary for May 13,1965: 10 (PM.) Mr. Patrick Sloyan UPI Bureau Wash DC. 6.4 (minutes).

“Hello, Pat, this is Lyndon Johnson.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“Say, I have here A101N from Johnson City, Texas by Kyle Thompson. (Johnson was holding a wire dispatch that just cleared the UPI teletype machine that sat next to his Oval Office desk. It detailed the opening of his Texas boyhood home to the public.)

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“Let’s see… You say in there that there’s going to be a fee for the tour. Well, that’s not right at all. The idea is to give it to the people.”

“Just a minute, Mr. President, and I’ll get the story.”

“You see what it says. It says ‘The home was opened to the public for fee tours.’ That isn’t right.

You see, it’s for free. That’s the idea. Do you see that?”

“Yes, Mr. President. It looks like they dropped the ‘r’ in the word ‘free.’”

“Well, Pat, it sure does mean just the opposite of what we mean.”

“It sure does, Mr. President. I’ll fix it.”

“Well, we want it to be free.”

“Certainly, Mr. President. I’ll straighten it out right away.”

“I’d appreciate it if you would clean this up for me.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”

“Thank you, Pat.”

“Thank you for letting us know, Mr. President.”

With so much on his plate, why would the Leader of the Free World stoop to the picayune duty of adding the wayward “r” to a news dispatch? In those days, the wire service news came banging over a teletype at 60 words a minute, punched by an operator. This time, the puncher’s slip caught the president’s eye. Johnson had the UPI machine close to his desk, the 1960s equivalent of President Trump’s obsessive watching of Twitter, Morning Joe, Fox News, even Saturday Night Live.

Both men were looking for love in the wrong place. Mix a touch of paranoia with a politician’s recurring insecurity, and you have a presidential trait shared by every Oval Office occupant I have covered since 1960. Perhaps it varied in degree, but out-to-get-me was always there. Today, Trump is convinced of organized media hostility. “I have a running war with the media,” he said last month. Later, he declared the media “the enemy” of the American people. Johnson could be paranoid about the press, too. In his mind, the misplaced “r” was no accident. “Johnson was convinced it was deliberate,” says Joe Latin, who served five presidents in the White House press office.

Some of his phobia was legitimate. When Johnson called me, his approval rating was near 75 percent. His years in the Senate made him a master of media stroking. “I’ll leak for you like a sieve,” he told The New York Times reporter Russell Baker in their first meeting.

Suppressing a rising disapproval rating was a struggle. Minor nicks to the image—yanking his beagle by the ears for instance—could add up. Championing Civil Rights would cost him southern voters in the 1964 campaign. So when things really got bad, with 1,000 young Americans dying every week in Vietnam, Johnson ran out of voter love. His disapproval rating became dominant in 1966 and continued to rise until he decided not to run again for re-election. Aides counseled him to make more televised speeches defending the war to counter a united media condemnation, according to Press Secretary George Christian. Johnson refused. “I can come out once in awhile,” he told them. “But those sons of bitches come out everyday.”

As president, Trump starts off in a hole with a disapproval rating of 55 percent of Americans interviewed. And he seems to be digging it deeper every day. “Any negative polls are fake news,” he tweeted. While Trump seems immersed in incompetence, some of his mishaps may be attributed to inexperience.

Just as wobbly was President John F. Kennedy. The ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 led to the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis. Originally, the invasion was the work of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew something about such an exercise after commanding the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Under Ike’s plan, once the Cubans landed at the Bay of Pigs, he predicted Castro would lead a counter-attack from Havana. En route, Castro and his army would be destroyed. Waiting to pounce were the Blue Blasters, the Navy’s fighter-bomber squadron aboard the USS Essex hiding just over the horizon. Kennedy vetoed the carrier strike and the Cuban invaders were killed and captured by Castro.

 


Eisenhower came to Kennedy’s support as he was pounded by the press and Republicans in Congress for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but his support came with a slice of humiliation. The five-star general took the young Navy lieutenant to task during a walk in the woods of Camp David. He challenged Kennedy’s refusal to order the nearby US Navy armada to wreck Castro and his army as they repelled the CIA-organized invasion of Cuba. Kennedy said the use of carrier-based warplanes would have exposed American involvement. “My advice was that we must try to keep our hands from showing in this affair,” Kennedy said. Ike was incredulous. “How could you expect the world to believe that we had nothing to do with it?” Ike said. Where did the invasion ships come from? Where did the invaders get weapons? “I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing: It must be a success,” Ike told Kennedy. Kennedy’s youth, wit, and intellect displayed in his speeches, created an image almost invulnerable to voter disapproval. When his approval rating soared to 85 percent, Kennedy could only wonder. “The worse you do, the better they like you,” he said. Kennedy’s charm and sincere personal exchanges with reporters transformed the White House press from adversaries to advocates.

Yet even then, Kennedy complained. “It’s almost impossible to write a story they like,” said Ben Bradlee, then bureau chief at Newsweek and a personal chum of the president. “Even if the story is favorable to their side, they’ll find one piece to quibble with.”

Trump’s bungling is amplified by his persona. At 70, he is the oldest person ever elected president. To compensate, he appears with dyed blond hair and a face frequently pasted with bronzer. The potbelly is hidden by a long tie and an unbuttoned suit coat. His size, demeanor, and invective projects Big Bully, a New York real estate hustler with sharp elbows. Throughout the election year, opponents were liars, losers, and weak. Humor was scarce. “I’m a smart guy. I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.” His Inaugural Address was almost universally reviewed as devoid of them.  

Contrast the Trump style with President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill,” which drew immigrants from around the world. Reagan’s refusal to criticize Republican opponents often extended to polite or even humorous attacks on Democrats. President Jimmy Carter, stuck with soaring energy prices, runaway inflation, and record interest rates, sought to portray Reagan as too irresponsible to handle nuclear weapons. Reagan’s reply drew laughter during the 1980 presidential campaign. “I will accept being irresponsible if he accepts being responsible,” Reagan said. As president, almost all of his political opponents found Reagan to be a man of perfect manners and good humor.

Trump has stumbled into the footsteps of President Nixon, another dour performer skilled with scare tactics. It was the disintegration of law and order in his successful 1968 campaign, a not-too-veiled attack on black Americans who burned cities after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that year.

Nixon faced a cadre of contemptuous reporters who disliked him from his days hunting communists in the House and Senate. Columnist Mary McGrory, wielding a straight razor with words about Nixon, wound up on the president’s enemies list, to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service.  Despite the animosity, Nixon’s Washington-wise staff did away with Kennedy-era restrictions to limit newsgathering at the Pentagon and other agencies. Communications Chief Herb Klein would help reporters pry out nasty facts. For four years, the media doted on Henry Kissinger and foreign policy gains such as re-establishing diplomatic ties with China and arms deals with Moscow. But all that changed after June 17,1972, when a security guard at the Watergate Hotel complex spotted tape on a door latch. Five arrested burglars were traced to Nixon. For the next four years, White House reporters set the agenda: All Watergate, all the time. Almost every day produced front-page scandal news. Newspaper circulation soared. (Any of that sound familiar?)

 


Nixon’s disapproval rating climbed to 75 percent, though Press Secretary Ron Ziegler warned reporters not to dismiss the 24 percent of Americans who still believed in Nixon. “Ron, 24 percent of the American people believe in the Easter Bunny,” one reporter countered.

A big part—the biggest part really—of Trump’s trouble with the press is his impulsive, sometimes erratic behavior. Nixon once boasted that his demeanor was effective in keeping foreign enemies off balance. “I call it the Madman Theory,” Nixon said in a tape-recorded session with his staff. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything. We’ll just let slip: ‘We can’t restrain him when he’s angry and he has hand on the nuclear button.’”

Trump’s behavior has sparked concerns from psychiatrists, one of whom—Dr. Judith Herman, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School—sent a letter to President Obama after Trump was elected. “We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the mental stability of our President-Elect,” Herman wrote. “Professional standards do not permit us to venture a diagnosis for a public figure whom we have not evaluated personally. Nevertheless, his widely reported symptoms of mental instability—including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality—lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office. We strongly recommend that, in preparation for assuming these responsibilities, he receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.”

Trump himself has fueled the concerns. “I know more than the generals” and his inaugural address where he dismissed the 50 years of achievements and labeled past presidents and Congress’ as political thieves. “Politicians have used you and stolen your votes,” Trump said. “They have given you nothing. I will give you everything you’ve been looking for 50 years. I am the only one.” His unfounded accusation of  wiretapping by former President Obama—along with some personal insults—was baffling to supporters and well as opponents. New York Times Columnist Gail Collins was the first to brand Trump a “nutcase.”

Relentless Watergate reporting produced an angry defense by Nixon.  “I welcome this kind of examination,” he said, opening his income tax records to the public. “People gotta know their president is not a crook. We’ll I’m not a crook.” An audit revealed he had taken a $500,000 deduction for giving the National Archives his vice presidential papers—all very legal. But President Carter, intensely moral in all things, got caught with an illegal deduction. Carter tried to write off  $41,000 for a research project to turn peanut shells into profit. But the IRS audit found he only had to pay $160 in back taxes. The good news: he paid $5,000 too much in past years, and the money was refunded. The Carter audit resulted in an IRS policy for mandatory presidential audits. They get a special orange folder at the IRS office in Baltimore where Technical Service agents keep them secret until the White House makes them public.

That was the routine for President Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush.  But Trump gives every indication he will continue to hide the returns and the secrets they keep from the American public. The leaking of one year’s innocuous return fooled no one. “I don’t believe there is anything that would prevent the president from … instructing that this precautionary measure of the IRS audits be rescinded,” Norman Eisen told McClatchy newspapers. He was special counsel to the Obama White house during the first term and put in place new ethics guidelines. “He could theoretically do it.” Trump aides argue his election proved voters were uninterested in tax dodging.

Editor’s note: This article was underwritten by the Helen Thomas Foundation that supports critical reporting of the White House Press Corps and the presidency.

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Patrick J. Sloyan covered nine presidents between 1960-2011. He is the author of The Politics of Deception: JFK’s Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba.