Defining the Presidency Down (what would Moynihan say?)

Yes, I realize this is likely to feel like déjà vu — this is about much the same point as this post yesterday.

But I was conversing via email with someone about that, and he shared this, so I’m going to share it with you.

Why return to the same topic? Because it’s an important one, making points that I think a lot of folks still haven’t absorbed.

Ever since Election Day — or maybe even since Trump captured the nomination — I’ve had this conversation over and over with some of you, and with others… Someone will say, “What are you so upset about? Why don’t you wait until Trump does something truly horrible, and react to that?” Which I answer with what seems to me excruciatingly obvious: He’s doing it already, every single day — with every crude lie he Tweets, with every embarrassing moment with a foreign leader, practically with every breath he takes. By being our president, he’s taking the greatest country on Earth and making it smaller, cruder, stupider, tackier — demeaning the treasure that our forebears bequeathed us.

It’s not something I can kick back and regard as normal. In fact, that would be inexcusable.

Anyway, like the one I cited yesterday, this piece captures that pretty well:

is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan

He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.

Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.

Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters….

I like that this one cites Moynihan. I always liked that guy. Not that I ever met him or anything.

In fact, I only saw him once in person. (Warning! Brad’s about to reminisce again!) It was that time in 1998 that I mentioned recently, when I went to Washington to check on Strom Thurmond and see if he was still functioning, and also visited Mike McCurry at the White House. Anyway, as long as I was there, McCurry arranged for me to attend a ceremony in the East Room marking the 50th anniversary of NATO.

That afforded me an extra opportunity to observe Strom, as it happened. After everyone else was seated, President Clinton walked in with Strom beside him holding onto his arm. Bill walked the nation’s senior senator to his front-row seat and got him situated before heading up to the podium to speak. (We Southern boys are brought up to act that way with our elders, and I thought better of Bill for it.)

Anyway, after the event was over and most of the media folks were headed back to the West Wing, I stepped out of the door that opens into the covered portico on the northern side of the House. I stood at the top of the steps for a moment deciding whether to continue to the press room or go back in and chat with folks, and watched as cars picked up the dignitaries, there at my feet.

I nodded to Strom as he came out, and watched him negotiate the steps pretty well. But there was a guy in front of him having all sorts of trouble hobbling down to his car.

It was Moynihan. He was only 69. Strom was 95 at the time.

It’s a shame Moynihan didn’t take better care of himself. If he had lived to be 100 like Strom, he’d still have 10 years to go now, and we’d have the benefit of his perspective as the nation so dramatically defines its self-respect downward…

6 thoughts on “Defining the Presidency Down (what would Moynihan say?)

  1. David Carlton

    Hey–I have problems making it down steps, and I’m 69. It’s because eight years ago I was in a near-fatal bicycle accident, and my legs have never quite recovered. These things happen.

    1. bud

      Yikes I just started cycling again at 60. It can be a dangerous hobby. Glad you’re still wit us David.

      1. John

        I’m afraid I just decided to stop biking after several years. Too many people in my Shandon neighborhood leave towering garbage piles in the street, it isn’t safe to bike anymore in the early mornings even with a light. Kudos to those who tough it out anyway. (also yes, Moynihan was great)

  2. Larry Slaughter

    Would Moynihan have just hung it up and lived out his days in the Hamptons if he was alive in this political environment? There are no facts, just opinions seems to be the word from the White House. Inconvenient facts are “fake news.” Moynihan’s footnotes and double and triple-checked facts would have been quickly dismissed, I think.

    And if a news organization insists that a well-researched fact is true, then the White House back-benches them in briefings. How does this differ from the Soviet propaganda machine of the Cold War? Limit the news outlets to only those who report “facts” that are favorable.

    Brad, I haven’t seen you weigh in on the White House’s managing of the Press Corps: “Gaggles” open only to favorable press in place of some press conferences; calling for questions from fringe news outlets in press conferences; POTUS saying “now there’s a very nice question” when he gets a softball. How do you see this differing from past administrations?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      About the last graf, there…

      No, I only occasionally take up the cudgels for the media. I was taught in my editorial-writing class in college that readers don’t care, and tend to tune you out when you do that. They see it as boring and self-serving, even thought they’re the ones who benefit from a free press.

      For instance… a week or two ago was Sunshine Week, when newspapers tend to run editorials touting the importance of open government. I saw that Cindi, or someone, decided to run some stuff about that on the edit page. I didn’t do that when I was EPE. There was something about concerted editorial action that gave me the creeps, even when in a good cause. The causes a newspaper chooses to take up should arise from the judgement of that paper’s editorial board, not from come national association. The independence of an individual paper’s board, and that paper’s relationship with its readers, was something sacrosanct to me, and I was wary of even the least threat to that from corporate or professional associations or anything else.

      Also… not being a part of the White House press corps or supervising anyone who covers the White House, I don’t know the ins and outs. From the outside, yes, it certainly appears Spicer et al. are trying to manipulate the media, playing favorites, etc. But I’m not always sure to what extent it’s a departure. I’ve read indications in mainstream media that the handling of gaggles, for instance, isn’t all THAT different from the past.

      Ultimately, the really ham-handed stuff — the pathetically needy gestures by Spicer and others, exploding at hard questions and cooing at embarrassingly toadying behavior of fringe “journalists” — is self-defeating. It makes them look ridiculous to anyone with a brain. (And the people who don’t see that LIKE to see the administration abuse the press. Perversely, they applaud it.) And I think one SNL skit about Spicer’s behavior is worth much more than a hundred blog posts by me, or even a hundred editorials in The Washington Post

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