Monday, August 07, 2017

Two Branches, Two Leaders, Two Speeches to Adolescent Boys

by Michael Dorf

The warp-speed news cycle has moved on, but I want to linger a bit over what now seems like ancient history: President Donald Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree two weeks ago. I shall contrast Trump's speech with one the previous month to a similar (albeit smaller) crowd: The ninth-grade commencement address that Chief Justice John Roberts delivered at the Cardigan Mountain school, where his son Jack was among the graduates. The Roberts speech was everything that the Trump speech wasn't: self-deprecating; well-crafted; compassionate; and wise. The contrast tells us something profound about the differences between the men who respectively head the judicial and executive branches of our national government.

Readers who are pressed for time may wish to read a transcript of the Roberts speech, but I recommend watching and listening to it in full. (It begins at the 5:45 mark and lasts just over 12 minutes.)

Meanwhile, a transcript of Trump's speech to the Boy Scouts Jamboree can be found here. You can watch and listen to the full speech here, but I won't embed the video for fear that the inanity would crash the blog.

Because of the nature of the adult-gives-speech-to-adolescents genre, the two speeches contain parallels. The contrasts within those parallels are striking.

1) After Roberts invites the graduates to show their gratitude to their parents and guardians, he humbly jokes that now he can say that his remarks were "interrupted by applause."

Trump disavows politics and then spends about half of his speech talking about politics. He brags about his unexpected electoral victory in the upper Midwest and takes credit for the Wall Street bull market.

2) Roberts advises the graduates to treat everyone respectfully. He says:
you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it. When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.
Trump talks about the "forgotten people" who voted for him, but not for the purpose of saying how such people are worth caring about. On the contrary, at one point he jokingly threatens to fire HHS Secretary Tom Price (seated behind him) if Price (who is no longer in Congress but somehow responsible for its votes) fails in stripping health insurance from millions of the forgotten people. Trump remembers the forgotten people not for their sake but only for the purpose of boasting about his electoral victory. 

3) Roberts unpacks the cliche "be yourself" by telling the graduates that this does not mean not to improve but to contemplate their values and how to live them.

Trump tells the Boy Scouts that they should find work that they love (admittedly good advice, though not always possible), which will ensure success (obviously false as to some of the audience but hyperbole common to the genre), and then says he loves being president, an example of someone loving his job. Rather than close the loop, however, Trump then remembers that he is the president, which distracts him from the point he was making and--of course--leads to his boasts about the election and the economy.

4) Roberts comes closest to an off-color remark when he says to the crowd at the all-boys school who will now be moving on to other schools "most of you will be going to a school with girls," then pauses and adds "I have no advice for you." The audience laughs and Roberts moves on. As the father of two teenage girls, I wish Roberts had said something more like "treat the girls with respect; you are as alien to them as they may seem to you." This was, I suppose, the low point of the Roberts speech, but it was clearly intended only as a bit of self-deprecating humor and was received that way. This Roberts low point was miles above the highest point of Trump's Boy Scouts speech.

To wit: Trump's off-color tale. He tells a rambling story about the developer William Levitt, who sold his business
for a tremendous amount of money. And he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won't go any more than that, because you're Boy Scouts so I'm not going to tell you what he did.
Trump then teases the crowd for a few moments as he contemplates completing the story. One can see the gears spinning inside Trump's head as he decides whether to describe what one imagines are cocaine-fueled orgies aboard Levitt's yacht. In a rare display of good judgment, Trump chooses not to go there explicitly, settling for some further lecherous innuendo.

5) Much of the media attention to the Trump Boy Scouts speech has focused on the inappropriateness of the political boasting and the thinly veiled sexual nature of the Levitt story, but I want to focus on what comes next in the Levitt tale. Before doing so, however, let's consider what may be the best passage in the Roberts speech. He says:
Now the commencement speakers will typically . . . wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Trump's speech contains something similar--but it is also, of course, wholly different. After leaving Levitt on his yacht, Trump tells the Boy Scouts that years later he finds Levitt sitting alone at a party, apparently depressed about his business having gone badly after he got bored of the orgies and repurchased it. Here's what the actual real-life president of the United States then says:
And [Levitt] explained what was happening and how bad it's been and how hard it's been. And I said, "What exactly happened? Why did this happen to you? You're one of the greats ever in our industry. Why did this happen to you?" And he said, "Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum." A word you never hear when you're talking about success when some of these guys that never made 10 cents, they're on television giving you things about how you're going to be successful, and the only thing they ever did was a book and a tape. But I tell you -- I'll tell you, it was very sad, and I never forgot that moment. And I thought about it, and it's exactly true. He lost his momentum, meaning he took this period of time off, long, years, and then when he got back, he didn't have that same momentum. In life, I always tell this to people, you have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don't have it, that's OK. Because you're going to go on, and you're going to learn and you're going to do things that are great. But you have to know about the word "momentum."
What is Trump trying to say here? Does he mean that if you stop doing something, you can't restart it? Why not? Does he realize that "momentum" is at best a metaphor? And even if there is some truth to what he is trying to say--about the importance of perseverance perhaps--how does knowing about the word momentum help? Does Trump even know what momentum is?

It's tempting to dismiss such questions as pointless and simply pity Trump, whose inability to articulate coherent thoughts seems to be evidence of the early stages of dementia. Even so, we can glean insights into Trump's mind (such as it is) by noting the particular incoherent thoughts he has.

Notice that at the end of the passage above a spark of decency buried deep within Trump's icy soul briefly flickers to light. "And if you don't have" momentum, Trump says, "that's OK." Perhaps Trump thought to himself "wait, some of the kids in this crowd won't be so successful; I should tell them that it's okay if they don't have momentum." So he says that. But then he forgets why he said it and says that they'll be okay because they'll turn out to be winners after all! Why? Because Trump can't imagine that it's okay--in the sense of being a person deserving of self-respect and the respect of others--not to be successful by conventional measures. Spark extinguished, he reverts back to "look at how wonderful I am, don't you want to be like me?".

* * *
The contrast between the Roberts speech and the Trump speech is in a sense preposterous. John Roberts is an extremely accomplished professional. Donald Trump is an ignorant bullying grifter, whose talents, such as they were, are in decline. Of course Roberts gives the better speech by far.

My point, however, is not simply that Trump gave a bad speech. That's obvious--despite the fact that Trump frequently boasts that (unnamed) people have told him that this or the other speech he delivered was the "single greatest" in its category.

Nor is my point one about oratory. The Roberts speech isn't great oratory. He's not Lincoln at Gettysburg or MLK describing his dream. It's a small speech--one that strikes just the right tone for the occasion.

And of course I'm not making a point about anything of substance. I disagree with a fair number of positions Roberts has taken as a justice. I disagree with virtually every policy to come out of the Trump White House. But that has nothing to do with my reactions to these speeches.

So what is the point of this comparison? Simply this: In a little over half a year of the Trump presidency we have become so accustomed to judging Donald Trump on his own unique curve that we can forget to be shocked. Pundits reacted to the Boy Scouts speech by noting that it was inappropriate to give a political speech, especially so when he attacked former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton. That's true. But pointing out the inappropriateness of the Trump Boy Scouts Jamboree speech strikes me as inadequate as an assessment.

Yes, the Trump speech to the Boy Scouts was inappropriate. But it was worse. It was downright indecent. Trump has barely any decency in him. To see that clearly, sometimes it's necessary to contrast him with--not the greatest orator of all time nor a saint--but a grownup professional human being with a sense of decorum. Reading the Roberts and Trump speeches side by side reminds one that Trump does not merely give horrible speeches; he is a horrible person. Pity him if you must, but never forget to be outraged by him.


Shag from Brookline said...

Growing up in the Boston area during the 1930s, '40s, I did not notice much Boy Scout activity, although there was an awareness of the organization, what with the Great Depression and then WW II. But I recall a parody of the Boy Scout Oath back then:

"On my honor, I'll do my best, to help myself, and cheat the rest."

Maybe it was from a Red Skelton radio show, or possibly Bob Hope. That parody seems to sum up Donald J. Trump's business career, with his penultimate [still my favorite word] Trump University grift to his presidency. The old TV series "The Naked City" started with the announcement "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City; this is one of them." Trump's history has been naked, revealed to all. Trump is a horrible person. Yet he won the presidency despite losing, significantly, the popular vote. What do we say of the voters who enabled Trump to win? A significant portion of Trump's voter base continues to support this horrible person, who gives horrible speeches. Polling shows approximately a third of Americans supporting the job Trump is doing as President. It is difficult pitying him, even pitying his enablers. Yes, Trump is a horrible person, but are his enablers horrible as well as it seems their "America First" translates into "Trump First." Jefferson's separation of Church & State comes to mind regarding the role of Evangelicals in their support of Trump despite Trump having lived a life challenging evangelism's principles, performing as Revengelicals. There are 8 gazillion stories in the life of the horrible Donald J. Trump, and this post is just one of them.

David Ricardo said...

The crassness of Trump has filtered down to others in his administration. Consider the Secretary of the Treasury. The previous Secretary was Jack Lew, a serious and experienced government fiscal operative. The current Secretary, Steve Mnuchin has never had government policy experience and he, like a bunch of the other extremely wealthy seems to be as much interested in enjoying the perks as he does formulating policy.

From the Washington Post:

"To be sure, Mnuchin appears to be enjoying the trappings of being a cabinet secretary. He meets weekly with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet L. Yellen, often for breakfast or lunch, to discuss a variety of financial market issues.

His wife, actress Louise Linton, has accompanied him to at least two congressional hearings, an unusual occurrence.

Whereas Lew seemed to eschew all the security and publicity — he once stood alone at night in Union Station waiting for his wife to get off a train — Mnuchin travels differently. He was recently seen leaving a Washington custom tailor shop in the middle of a workday with a group of Secret Service agents. His wife gave an interview to Town & Country magazine detailing all the types of diamonds and pearls she would wear at their June wedding."

It used to be that wealthy people served in government out of a sense of duty. Trump does it for the ego trip. Mnuchin is one of a large group of folks who serve out of a sense of entitlement, tax breaks and living high on the taxpayer's dime even though they could afford to pay for their own extravagant lifestyle. Maybe they are not the greedy self centered wealthy who want to deny health and economic security to millions, maybe they just act that way. Certainly they have no problem serving a President whose offensive behavior is documented in this Post by Mr. Dorf.

Shag from Brookline said...

The Trump Administration from its inception seemed to be a variation of the TV series "The Beverley Hillbillies" supported by the adulation of the concept of the co-called "Hillbilly Elegy." In actuality, Donald J. Trump as President is truly in the role of "The Apprentice," judging his own performance. Trump, unlike Mayor Koch, doesn't ask "How am I doing?" instead telling all he is doing spectacularly.

But imagine the plight of Steve Bannon bearing with the knowledge that at Trump Administration meetings his presence is a reminder to others of what the Mooch said, which is not quite the same as contemplating one's navel (or that of an orange, wink, wink).

Joe said...

Louise Linton's latest appearances were Betty in "Rules Don't Apply" and Veronica [forthcoming] in "Odious." [Seriously.]

I appreciate Roberts' professionalism and humanity even as I disagree with him in various respects. That is how things are supposed to work -- even when you strongly disagree with the other side, there should be a baseline of credibility.

(Sen. McConnell is out there bragging about confirming Gorsuch, to reassure people the Republicans accomplished something. Tainted Court.)

Lloyd said...

I enjoyed reading your post until the words "horrible person". Don't you view it as problematic for a progressive like you to say someone is a bad person (that is, I guess, a being with very little value), however much you may hate him or her? This is not consistent with the compassion and decency that you extol. Great massacres (not to say worse) are committed by saying that the person or group of persons you do not like is not truly human. I honestly think you are better than this.

Bass Around the World said...

Lloyd, you are making a leap. Donald Trump is objectively a horrible person (do we really need to list the litany of his offensive behavior?). Going from that to calling not truly human is your leap, not Mr. Dorf's. Compassion and decency include not calling someone names, and calling someone a horrible person has been name calling in some cases, but here, it's merely stating the facts. Remember that even "moron" was a technical term at one point. Now it's largely just an insult.

You are making a stretch and a deliberate misapprehension to attack the author, rather than address his points.

Shag from Brookline said...


"Great massacres (not to say worse) are committed by saying that the person or group of persons you do not like is not truly human."

does not reflect what Mike said in his post. Perhaps Lloyd is confusing things that candidate Trump said starting with his screed on Mexicans and through the campaign and election. [If I had the time, I could count the ways.] A person can be horrible and be human, truly. But perhaps Lloyd could provide us with examples of such great massacres, or worse, that he claims are so committed.

By the way, progressives could properly point out that the Robber Barons of The Gilded Age were horrible persons. And compare what Congress did almost unanimously with the "Sanctions Bill" that President Trump was forced to sign presumably concerned with how horribly President Trump might otherwise deal with Russia sanctions based upon Trump's campaign and presidency so far.

Joseph said...

"You are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it. When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school."

Roberts is absolutely right about not acting privileged. I question the merit of the latter half of that advice. To my eye, someone who goes out of their way to talk to someone ('lowly') because they feel privileged is patronizing that person to make himself feel like a good person. Maybe the idea is that the habit, however insincere, might result in honest friendship or at least instill a habit of treating others as equals. I suppose there are some people who don't know how to do that. Nonetheless, I've always found that advice ethically dubious.

David Ricardo said...

Mr. Simmons is dead on.

Joe said...

I am not sure there is an obligation to talk to the landscaping staff, and when I went to a perfectly ordinary high school, I did not. Why should students introduce themselves to such people? That sounds weird to me. If students regularly deal with them? That makes more sense. Saying "hi, Mr. Jackson" to the regular person who cleans up the gym when you finish practice can be seen as a simple act of politeness. "Lowly" is inferred btw.

OTOH, a teacher as a fellow employee of the school? That makes more sense. Justices do the same. They often say hello and get to know the names of members who work there. Simply calling them by their names is not the same as "friendship" but provides a certain bare minimum of equality on the level of employees. That is surely not full equality. I don't think the justices need to go around trying to chat up each janitor. Just saying "hi Jim or hi Mr. Jackson, however, is a reasonable approach.

Unknown said...

I am so sick and tired of Trump bashing. Do you guys find it even difficult to go to sleep thinking of Trump. My advice is to go back to work. Immerse your self in it's details. Improve your craft. Write an article for a professional journal. Keep busy. Take tranquilizers if it's that bad. And before you know it be time to elect a new president.

That's the prescription I took for the 8 years Obama was president and I survived..

Martin Kessler

Shag from Brookline said...

So Unknown [aka Martin Kessler] stuck his head in the sand for the 8-years of America's first African-American President and now suggests that same remedy for those of us who criticize America's first PG [Hollywood Access tapes] President? Perhaps Unknown can serve as our eyes and ears during the Trump presidency? It should be pointed out that many of Trump's supporters took more addictive prescriptions than did Unknown. Could it be that Unknown's survival benefitted from Obamacare?

Shag from Brookline said...

I note that Joseph diverts the focus of this thread from the privileged and horrible Donald J. Trump to the privileged but patronizing CJ Roberts (somewhat in the manner of Kellyanne Conway). Perhaps Mike should devote a separate post to Roberts to demonstrate how the privileged might not recognize corruption before their very eyes.

But as to Joseph's criticism of Roberts' speech, I went from coed schools in Boston through the 8th grade and then to a central all boys Boston high school in 1943, Boston English High School that brought together under one roof kids of various ethnicities and races from all parts of Boston. There were about 3,000 students. It was wartime, following the Great Depression. I never noticed the janitors; there were no groundskeepers. So I did not have occasion to say hello to the "lowly" help. The school had a tight budget. As a result, the school's windows were dirty. One day I noticed markings on a second story set of windows that included a clean square area explained by finger-lettering above it: "God said, Let there be light, but the janitor said No!"

I enjoyed my 4-years at English High. It was a privilege for me, though I and my fellow students were not privileged in the sense of Trump and Roberts, or their children. That was a time when many graduates of English High were not going off to college but into the military. By the time I was graduated in 1947, the war was over. The GI Bill provided my older brother (and many other) a college education that otherwise would not have been readily available. As a result, I was able to get to college and then law school with family help. [No student loans back then that I was aware of.] I look back as I soon will enjoy my own personal Gettysburg Address to all those years and feel privileged, but being well aware that I was not born on third base. I say "hello" frequently not to be patronizing but just to be sociable. As I got older, I stopped asking people the rhetorical "How are you?" as many would respond to a litany of complaints, medical and otherwise. But it's nice to be polite, especially to children, who will end up working and contributing to my Social Security payments.

Shag from Brookline said...

For more on the horrible Donald J. Trump, check out Leah Litman's current post at the Take Care Blog.

Joe said...

Leah Litman is usually a good read and per her Twitter, glad she took time from her Ireland vacation to provide another piece. Connection: both Dorf and Litman clerked for Kennedy.

Shag from Brookline said...

Leah focuses upon the "unpresidential" in describing legal positions taken on behalf of Trump in both presidential and personal litigation. Query: Is being unpresidential unprecedented? Somewhere someone had a comparative of Trump/Agnew that was interesting.

Joseph said...

Shag, don't believe that I "diverted the focus of this thread" and I don't think I need only chime in to offer the equivalent of "Yes. This." that we see so often as evidence of enlightenment on the internet.

I think the Trump, Republican, and conservative bashing gets heavy-handed around here but I don't think that observation is terribly impactful.

Prof Dorf found Roberts' remarks wise, he commented on what he though was a slightly off-colored portion, he quoted certain passages he thought would illustrate his point. I found one of those passages he quoted worth commenting on as questionable advice. That's hardly a diversion. I say this less to justify my own comment than to contrast with yours ;) Since this blog post is about contrasts, it brings us full circle.

As for being sociable, that is apparently part of who you are; you're presumably not doing it because you're privileged. It may be good advice to be friendly with everyone you encounter. Think Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Harvey." Honest desire for human connection and to take care of your fellow man are good qualities.

My objection is that an ascot-wearing youth might only say hello to the janitor out of a recognition of privilege. "I wanted to say hello, because I am privileged," is awfully patronizing even if you do not verbalize that last bit. Still, as I suggested, maybe some good is supposed to result from the crude advice.


Here is a real diversion: be good for you to write your life's stories for your heirs to be able to appreciate. As I look into my genealogy I think what a pity it is that these people's lives are so lost to history.

Joe said...

"unpresidential unprecedented"

There were past presidents who were seen at the time as not very presidential in certain respects, such as Theodore Roosevelt. The problem here is largely the details. There are certain more benign behaviors that public officials really should try to avoid but we can give them somewhat of a pass. At some point, it's too much.

Shag from Brookline said...

Joseph, I take your point that CJ Roberts' speech upon analysis might suggest a tad of horrible to compare with Trump. None of us is "prefect." Perhaps a post examining some of Roberts' Court opinions might disclose horribles to better compare with those of Trump.

I'm not into memoirs, having read a fair amount of them. I've heard friends discuss writing memoirs for heirs. There is the serious question of accuracy, as it is well known that the memory is the second thing to go. A memoir for heirs made by me would reference other persons and care would have to be taken not only to be accurate but also not to unduly offend. And my many years of law practice would present issues of confidentiality regarding important events. My four children are in their 40s and already know enough about me, including genealogy. There are mysteries in every person's life that perhaps should so remain. My life has been an open book that has many blank pages. The disciplines in writing history can be in short supply with a memoir, even limited to family. I do tell stories from time to time. Perhaps some who have heard them several times may note that they seem to evolve. I've spent a lot of time with practicing attorneys, including socially, over the years and have noticed this with stories they repeat regaling legal victories that I might have some knowledge on. So I'll pass on your suggested diversion and stick to identifying diversions of others. And who's better at diversions than Donald J. Trump?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for all the comments. One small point about the issue Joseph Simmons raises: I completely agree that what Roberts said risks being heard as a message to keep a noble bearing by smiling on the commoners. So yes, you absolutely raise a valid concern. That said, based on the recently surfaced recording of the high-school-aged Stephen Miller complaining that he shouldn't have to pick up his trash because others are paid to do so, it appears that even feigned appreciation for those who work hard to get by would be a dramatic improvement for some.

Shag from Brookline said...

I watched a video of Roberts' speech. The private school setting brought to mind the role of Betsy DeVos in the Trump Administration, particularly the threats on public school systems. Of course the privileged have long had available private schools for their children. These privileged at the same time pay taxes required to support public school systems which they do not use. This may stick in the craws of some such privileged. But if public school systems are failing, or fail, are vouchers the answer or would that further exacerbate the growing wage/assets inequality in America? Would this lead to permanent underclasses in America beyond the Forgotten voters who supported Trump? Would this lead to Trump's Revengelicals imposing their religious values? Keep the non-privileged from voting or in their place?

Roberts mentioned the trail of tears after the privileged parents dropped off their children at this NH private school. Were perhaps some of these privileged parents shedding tears of joy that they could then perhaps focus on their careers/social lives without the daily parental chores? [As to the impact on the child, perhaps Mike's Miller-time link may provide some indications.]

Maybe this topic deserves a separate post.