Posted first thing Wednesday morning, February 28, 2018.
Peter O’Toole as the title character in the 1965 film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”.
I’m sure he would’ve, just like he charged all those machine gun nests in Viet…oh…yeah…
President Trump claimed Monday that he would have rushed into the Florida high school during the mass shooting earlier this month there that killed 17 people, and he called it “disgusting” that an officer assigned to the school didn’t enter the building while the attack was underway.
“I really believe I'd run in, even if I didn't have a weapon,” Trump said during a White House meeting with governors from across the country…---from the Washington Post, Monday, February 26, 2018.
Trump is soulmates with his voters. All over America grown men are saying the same thing to themselves. “If I’d a been there…” And these child-men are allowed to vote, drive cars, get married, and own guns.
Once upon a time, any blowhard who said something this stupid in public would have been laughed off his bar stool by his fellow regulars. Now he goes online to connect with his fellow blowhards and they exchange boasts and egg and cheer each other on.
One of the appalling things about Trump---and I mean Trump the phenomenon and totemistic figure here, the central idol in a cult of self-worship, and that’s what many of Trump’s most ardent idolaters are engaged in, worship of an idealized, glorified self. Through their identification with him they’re aggrandizing themselves, telling themselves they aren’t the losers they’re afraid they truly are---one of the appalling things, I say again, is the way he’s swooningly admired as if there have been no other presidents to measure him against.
The notion of Five Deferment Don, “Cadet Bone Spurs” as Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Senator Tammy Duckworth calls him, running headlong into a hail of bullets is laughable on the face of it. The notion of Trump running at all, toward, away, any direction, is side-splittingly funny. But we have had Presidents who did run into hails of bullets or at least put themselves in harm’s way. War veterans and actual war heroes. Working backwards: George Herbert Walker Bush, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, Rutheford B. Hayes, Ulysses Grant, Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson---supposedly Trump's model president. I think he was really Steve Bannon's---James Monroe, and that first guy, I forget his name.
James Garfield was killed by a bullet---well, actually by the doctor's repeated attempts to remove the bullet. That story is well-told in Candice Milliard's great "Destiny of the Republic". But as reader John reminded me in a comment [Editor's note: Psst. This is an update to the post. I left Garfield out of the above list, intending to give him his own paragraph, like this paragraph, then forgot. Thanks for the reminder John.], Garfield was a genuine hero of the Civil War. He was an abolitionist too and a strict Reconstructionist. And he was a highly intelligent, capable, and decent human being. In many ways, he was his era's Barack Obama. He was the worthiest heir to Lincoln, and his assassination was a terrible injury to the Republic. That story is also well-told in Milliard's book, which you should do yourself the favor of reading, if you haven't already.
John also reminded me that Franklin Pierce was a veteran of the Mexican War. I'd completely forgotten about him. I don't mean his military service, I mean him. Pierce was a pretty poor specimen, as a man and even more so as a President. He's one of the very few Presidents next to whom Trump appears, not good, but a little less awful. He's still the worst by far, as a man. As a President, he's working hard on that. Only thing he does work hard on. Historians will have to decide, though, if the Muslim ban, the mass deportations, his betrayal of the Dreamers, and the encouragement he gives to white supremacists and neo-Nazis outweigh Pierce's signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law in destructiveness and evil.
Richard Nixon was in the Navy during World War II. It’s said, sneeringly, that he spent the war safe and comfortable behind the lines, playing and winning at poker, but he contributed to that image himself, jokingly downplaying his service in speeches and interviews, trying to appear modest and unassuming while still making the point he was a veteran. Like all Nixon’s attempts to be funny, people missed the joke. But although he was stationed on land and not aboard ship—his first assignment was in Iowa!---like Mr Roberts he angled to get himself assigned to a seat of more action and was sent to the South Pacific, where he was technically in a combat zone, and, again like Mr Roberts, what he did was critical to the war effort even if it didn’t appear heroic or adventurous---he was the officer in charge of Combat Air Transport Command for Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands and appears to have been pretty good at the job.
Jimmy Carter is a Navy veteran of the Korean War era but he didn’t see combat. He did serve in the submarine service, not the safest or cushiest of assignments back then, and twice put his life on the line---once accidentally but the incident demonstrated his courage and steel. You could even call him a World War II veteran too. He entered Annapolis in 1943 but the war ended before he graduated. And Abraham Lincoln was a volunteer captain in the militia and led his men off to fight in the Black Hawk War. He didn’t fight any Indians but he did have, as he famously said, “a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes.”
And here are the war heroes who ran for President just in Trump’s adult lifetime: John McCain, John Kerry, Bob Dole, and George McGovern. Kerry literally did run into a hail of bullets. Not unarmed but with just a pistol. Probably like he prefers heroes who weren’t captured, Trump prefers heroes who couldn’t shoot back as well as heroes who weren’t grievously wounded and crippled for life and heroes who didn’t win their medals for crashlanding their flak-damaged bombers on too short runways and saving their crew with their superior piloting skills.
Unfit as he is, Trump stands in their company. He holds the office they held or might have held. You’d think he’d have sense enough not to invite comparisons. You’d think he’d have sense enough not to invite comparisons to almost any president, seeing, as he is, the most miserable specimen of human being ever to hold the office, Andrew Johnson being possibly the only exception. Every other President had some virtues. But Trump has no shame, and besides which, along with being a liar and a conman, hand in hand with those qualities, in fact, he’s a fantasist. He routinely talks about himself as if he believes he’s the greatest President ever, the way a crooked salsesman will talk as if he believes the lemon he’s trying to sucker a credulous high school kid buying his first car into springing for is the greatest piece of automotive engineering since the ‘63 Corvette. It’s a key to his success as a conman, suckering the credulous and the greedy into buying his lemons---his get rich schemes. Which is what his campaign was and his presidency is, really. Vote for me and I’ll make you rich! Stick with me and I’ll make you rich! The reason his voters don’t see the ridiculousness of Trump’s placing himself in those other president’s company is they don’t see those presidents. All they see is Trump. Actually, all they see is themselves as Trump.
They see themselves rich without effort, successful without merit, celebrated without deserving, a boss without any special talent or brains or proven ability, having achieved all that despite all that, idolized by crowds, envied and feared by other, better men, with beautiful women at their beck and call. He’s the them they’ve always fantasized themselves as being, given the chance. And now that he’s declared himself a hero invulnerable to bullets, they’re free to indulge that fantasy too.
Like I said, this country is full of childish men convinced they’re heroes in waiting. They expect their big moment will come at any time and, I’ll add, they resent anyone and anything they think’s blocking that moment’s arrival.
We don’t necessarily imagine ourselves literally rushing into burning buildings, diving into the water to save a child from drowning, or rushing down a school hallway unarmed to take down a determined mass murderer with a semi-automatic assault rifle who can empty his magazine in less than the time it takes us to take even one step in his direction. But we take it for granted that when the critical moment comes we’ll do the decent thing, the moral thing, the courageous thing, because, after all, aren’t we decent, aren’t we moral, aren’t we courageous?
One of my favorite grace notes---those small touches in a movie that help illuminate a theme or reveal something about a character without calling attention to themselves so that we take them in and understand them almost unconsciously---in “Captain America: First Avenger”---Yes. Superhero movies can have grace notes.---is when Steve Rogers, still short and scrawny, unpacks after his arrival at the training camp for would-be Super Soldiers and we see that his small trunk is full of the boy’s adventure stories with moralizing titles he read as a kid and from which, an orphan, he taught himself what it means to be a good man. Steve is already Captain America. That’s why the serum works on him. He’s small but he has an extra large heart. The serum doesn’t turn him into Cap. It gives him the strength to carry on as the hero he is in but on a larger stage with a greater purpose. He hasn’t been a hero in his own mind. We’ve seen him at work, taking on bullies who bully others not himself, and we know how much more he’s trying to do by attempting to enlist again and again even though he keeps being rejected as 4F.
Steve---Cap---is the childhood ideal. Jim, the title character of Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, is the adult reality.
Conrad introduces Jim as being a shade under six feet, that is, a shade under the stereotypically heroic height, a powerfully built young merchant seaman, barely out of his teens, with “Ability”, looking down from his station in the fore-top on people below with the contempt of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers”. Like Steve Rogers, Jim raised himself on boy’s adventure stories. Unlike Steve Rogers, his ambitions and ideals are tinged with vanity. He goes to sea to give himself the chance to show to the world, and to himself, he’s the hero he’s meant to be.
On the lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas, and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men—always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.
Jim starts out well. He rises rapidly. He gets a berth as chief mate “aboard a very fine ship”, but…
…without ever having been tested by those events of the sea that show in the light of day the inner worth of a man, the edge of his temper, and the fibre of his stuff; that reveal the quality of his resistance and the secret truth of his pretences, not only to others but also to himself.
A minor injury to his leg forces him to give up the berth while he recovers. When his leg heals, he’s impatient to get back to sea and, with no other immediate prospects for employment, he signs on as chief mate aboard an old steamer sailing out of Singapore with a “cargo” of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. One night, far out to sea, the steamer collides with something floating just below the surface and starts to take on water. The cowardly captain and some of the crew abandon ship. Jim intends to do his duty and stay with the ship and its passengers even if it sinks. But at the last moment he reflexively jumps from the deck into the lifeboat and rows away. It turns out, that the steamer doesn’t sink and another ship comes to its rescue. Jim is disgraced. He spends the rest of the book both hiding from his past and looking for a chance to show he’s a hero and resolved that this time he won’t jump.
You know the rest.
None of us know ahead of time what we would do in a crisis, physical or moral. We can only go by how we’ve handled things in the past. But battle-hardened veterans have admitted that in the same firefight in which they’d acted heroically at the outset they had a sudden moment of fear in which they froze and survived the next hail of bullets either through blind luck or because someone else unexpectedly came to their rescue, often with tragic results for that someone else.
We can make plans in our heads. We can rehearse it in our imaginations. We can resolve that when the moment comes…
But we can’t know.
We can’t be certain that at the last second we won’t…jump.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Old Father Blonde, a Navy veteran, who loved Conrad and, when he was Young Father Blonde and Mrs M was a baby blonde, read “Lord Jim” out loud to her when she was in her crib and falling asleep.
The Editors recommend a related Mannion re-run: a story from real life about a young seaman who when his moment came did not jump, The day young Ensign Carter was almost lost at sea.
"Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President " by Candice Millard is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon and as an audiobook from Audible.