OPINION — Though his two terms have ended, it is a tradition that former President Barack Obama has continued: providing his year-end list of favorite books (and films and music). This year, not surprisingly, his book of the year is Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” already a best-seller. That makes sense, since she is not only his wife and one of America’s favorite first ladies, but also, according to Gallup, the “most admired” woman in the country. Plus, can you imagine the troubles at home if another title topped his list?
But what of our current president?
Through the words of his staff and aides, many of whom have left the building, we know he is not that into reading, whether briefing paper or book, though “Trump: The Art of the Deal” will always have a special place in his heart. And to be fair, with a Democratic majority in the House and anticipated findings in special counsel Robert Mueller’s various investigations, Donald Trump has a lot on his 2019 plate.
But reading is more than a time-consuming chore; immersion in a book can be a relaxing escape, just what the doctor ordered if Trump would think of learning new information as a cure rather than a punishment.
To start, although we know he follows Obama obsessively and takes delight in playing his Bizarro, mirror-image opposite, in one case Trump should steal one of the former president’s favorites. That would be “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight, since last we heard, Trump thought the famous abolitionist and author might still be very much with us, “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.”
However, for No. 2, we recommend a dictionary, the edition of his choice, for help in comprehension.
What’s in a name?
“Wall” has just four letters, but so many meanings. To Trump it is “beautiful,” something akin to a less grandiose version of the Great Wall of China, though not able to be seen from space, made of concrete and 35 to 40 feet tall. To Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, it is a “metaphor” (another study word) for border security. Former chief of staff John Kelly said the idea of an actual wall was abandoned long ago, but the president pushed back at that notion — providing a clue to why Kelly is no longer on the White House payroll.
Other terms tossed around: fencing, barrier and, to quote soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a “beaded curtain.” “Build the fencing,” let alone “build the beaded curtain,” certainly lacks oomph when chanted at a rally, but everyone needs to settle on what “wall” means if anyone is ever going to make progress. (And who is going to pay for it if not, as promised, Mexico.)
Which leads to the next word, “shutdown.” Since the White House and Mar-a-Lago no doubt have plenty of staffers catering to the president’s every need, Trump may not have noticed that ordering a shutdown actually shuts things down. A stroll past the shuttered national monuments in Washington would complement merely reading that definition.
“Compromise” — now that’s a word with which the president has little familiarity. A crash course is due as he prepares to strike deals with a no-longer-compliant House of Representatives, now in Democratic control.
Compromise, when it means giving up on a core belief, has become something of a dirty word. But it doesn’t have to be so, a lesson as Congress is back in session with bipartisan meetings on the schedule. Failure to compromise can result in giving up on something extremely important to you (see “wall,” above), even if it may mean signing on to something, say a DACA deal, that doesn’t thrill you. How much can the president and representatives and senators of both parties, as well as various activists, compromise before they feel compromised? American is about to find out.
By the book
When it comes to the word “illegal,” as the results from Mueller and the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York trickle out, Trump should probably rely more on the Constitution and Merriam-Webster and less on former President Richard Nixon, who famously told interviewer David Frost in 1977: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
The word “frenemy,” someone who is both ally and rival, is more colloquial than the others. If Trump wants to know what it means, he might pull out a picture of the new Republican senator from Utah, Mitt Romney.
Though Romney himself has dipped his toe in the swamp of “birtherism” in his presidential campaign against Barack Obama, written off “47 percent” of Americans he characterized as seeing themselves as victims and welcomed Trump’s support in the past, this opening editorial shot before he was sworn in hit a scolding note.
In a Washington Post column, Romney both praised some of the president’s policies and rebuked his character, writing: “On balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions this month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
Of course, Trump struck back, tweeting, “I won big, and he didn’t,” showing the word “restraint” is not in his vocabulary.
President Trump, remember when you dangled the secretary of State position in front of Romney and then left him hanging or criticized him on the campaign trail for choking “like a dog” in his 2012 presidential run, complete with exaggerated impersonation? Actions like that often have “consequences,” something you have hardly experienced in your 72 privileged years.
That Romney column is a perfect example of what is called “payback.”
Look it up.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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