Most mornings these days I feel like I’ve awoken in a shiva house (Jewish house of mourning). Why do I refer to a shiva house? Because it feels like I’m grieving for the death of the American presidency as I’ve known it and studied it for my entire life. The numbing sense of loss is as though I’ve experienced a death in the family. The difference is that the initial period of Jewish mourning, shiva, lasts a week. Sitting shiva for the American presidency may not be able to be accomplished in the span of a mere week.
I grew up as a child of the 50’s and 60’s in the post-World War II and Korean War era when there was enormous pride and unity in our nation energized by our military successes and ironically by our fear of nuclear annihilation. Civil Defense shelters were everywhere. You could barely walk through the streets of an American city without seeing the ubiquitous signs directing us to bomb shelters.
Our AM-only car radios had two logos showing us how to find the Conelrad station where we would hear emergency broadcast information in the event of enemy attack during the Cold War.
And of course, none of us who grew up in that period can ever forget the “duck and cover” drills in school which naively taught that in the case of an enemy attack crawling under our small wooden desks would keep us safe.
It was a terrifying but unifying time for a nation that turned to its President for a calm and steady hand and voice to bring us together and allay our worst fears.
Without doubt we had, and still have a long way to go as a nation to fully deliver on the promise of the founders that “All men (and women) are created equal”. And we still had much to overcome in terms of racial and religious animus and bigotry; violence that would assault neighborhoods and eventually assassinate a president and civil rights leaders. But despite it all we were able to feel as one nation under God thanks to respected leaders in The White House, in Congress and in our own communities. Under all of the debris of civil unrest and injustices there was still a sense of pride and respect if not always agreement.
As a child I remember feeling the unbounded pride and respect for the Office of the President. I was born when Truman was president but it was Dwight David Eisenhower or Ike as everyone liked to call him that are my earliest memories of a U.S. president. The admiration and affection that the nation had for Ike was something I remember vividly. And in my hometown of Boston it was demonstrated daily by a most unlikely group of patriots – young school children.
Bob Emery was an enormously popular Boston after school TV host known as “Big Brother Bob”. Every day upon returning home from school I turned on the TV to watch Big Brother look into the studio camera directly at me and all the kids in his viewing audience and then ask us to raise our glasses of milk in a toast to the President. On the wall of Big Brother’s set was a portrait of President Eisenhower. That sign of respect is seared in my childhood memory.
As the years went on I developed a passion for the American presidency. No doubt that was in large part because by the time I was maturing Boston’s favorite son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had become the nation’s 35th president. So beloved was JFK that you could barely find a Boston home without something on the wall of the kitchen or living room that paid tribute to him and his wife, Jackie.
There have been 13 presidents in my lifetime. None were perfect men. Some were decidedly better than others. Even the one who resigned his office in disgrace was, before the scandal that brought him down, generally credited with having achieved many important accomplishments for the nation. Yes, even Richard Nixon, reviled by so many, was able to achieve a long list of achievement for the American people. Among them he:
- Opened relations with China
- Ended the Vietnam War
- Ended the draft to create an all-volunteer military
- Founded the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act
- Dedicated $100 million to fight cancer creating national cancer centers
- Signed Title IX opening doors for women collegiate athletes
- Signed a civil rights act preventing gender bias in universities and colleges receiving federal funding
- Lowered the voting age from 21 to 18
- Gave Native Americans the right to tribal determination ending a policy of forced assimilation and returning their sacred land
But we now live in frighteningly different times. Though there has always been an active or latent threat to the nation from outside our shores we have never been as threatened from within. And by within I mean specifically within the curved walls of the Oval Office. And the prospect of anything good or positive springing forth from this president is an extremely remote pipe dream.
I won’t attempt to enumerate or re-litigate the countless offenses of our 45th president both legal and moral. That long list has been the focus of non-stop attention by news and social media reports and commentaries.
It is the cumulative impact on our national psyche that is most alarming, disturbing and dangerously insidious. Fanning the flames of hate and intemperance as Donald Trump did in his comments following the events in Charlottesville and soon thereafter at his Phoenix rally embolden and empower those who support an agenda that does anything but make America great(er).
The most worrisome part of Donald Trump is that he demonstrates no positive leadership qualities whatsoever. He is not LEADING us to hate and division as much as he is REFLECTING it. The hate and division that has been waiting beneath the surface for Trump’s clarion call are like millions of 17-year Cicadas that emerge when the environment is right for them to break through the earth and blot out the sky like locusts.
Trump empowers and enables the ugliness that has always been a part of our society. Not until leaders from politics, business, clergy, NPO’s, and others universally and courageously denounce him, marginalize him and hopefully pressure him to vacate his position do we stand any kind of a chance to effectively swat the insects that are spreading the disease of hate in our country.
The unkindest cut of all is that even when Trump leaves office those that wore the red ball caps at his rallies and blindly supported him even against their own self-interest will retreat below the surface like the 17-year cicadas waiting to re-appear when the next Trump-like figure comes along. While we nervously wait to see what the fringe produces as its next champion we will watch the most revered and awesome office in world democracy die a slow death. Oh, we’ll continue to have presidents and there will be an Oval Office in the West Wing. But the bar will have been lowered so far by the current occupant that the presidency will perhaps no longer exist to be admired and respected in the future as it was in the past.
The presidency may not be dead though it surely feels like it is. Maybe it is just so irreversibly diseased that like a patient devastated with Alzheimer’s Disease it is unable to remember how it is supposed to behave. And as was said about a former president who actually died from Alzheimer’s, for the patient and those who love him or her, it is a devastatingly long goodbye.
We may now be witnessing that long goodbye of the institution of the American presidency which has become infected by its incumbent with the least, not greatest, of the virtues he inherited from his 44 predecessors.
So, I mourn for what has been lost. Was the loss of righteousness of the presidency caused by a self-destructive fire starter who self-immolated himself leaving the heart of the presidency extinguished along with the dumpster fire that was the Trump era? Or was it incinerated by extreme right wing flame throwers in an act of unwitting arson?
Whatever the cause, the shadow of death has blanketed our democracy. So as for me, I sit shiva for the noble design which the founders crafted and which most of our first 44 presidents lifted up, though a few let down, but none of whom let die. As with most mourners, I pray that there will be an end of the grieving period and as is Jewish custom, I will arise from shiva, go outside for a walk around the block to symbolize re-entry into the day-to-day world. For Jews, that shiva period typically lasts a week. I’m afraid this period of mourning may need more time before normalcy will return.