Oprah and Trump the parachutists

Stephen Spielberg thinks Oprah Winfrey would make a fine President of the USA. So that’s okay. “She’s been on the air for 35 years with all sorts of social outreach…I call her the ambassador of empathy”. He was asked whether she had the “skillset” – “does our current president have the skillset – ?” he replied. Well, give the man his dues: Trump has been struggling to empathise with Kim Jong-Un for months.

Now, there’s part of the problem. The bar has been set so low with Donald Trump that almost anyone can step over it. Trump invites judgement at the level of the lowest common denominator. But this is fundamentally wrong. If we are using Trump as a benchmark for who might be president of the USA we will accept just about anyone – including Stephen Bannon and Michael Wolff himself!

In fact, there have been US presidents as unqualified as Winfrey and Trump. The only public post Chester Arthur, 21st President, held had been as a tax inspector – Eisenhower had only ever been a soldier. Abraham Lincoln, himself, only served one term in the House before becoming the most admired president the country has had – though he had, of course, been an active revolutionary. And the USA has had its share of disastrous presidents who, nonetheless, had appropriate backgrounds: Hoover, Harrison, Fillmore, Harding. Indeed, though Hilary Clinton – like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon – was supremely politically qualified for the presidential role – seasoned and experienced at State management – she was widely thought to be too much so – so credentialed that her unimpeachability might be disabling of democracy.

So what is it that might make Oprah Winfrey qualified or otherwise for the job – besides her olympian skills of empathy?

Unlike university professors, doctors and lawyers, politicians don’t have a body of knowledge that carries with it certain qualifications that ensure only those who have mastered the knowledge are admitted to the tribe. Politics is not policed in the same way that law is – there are no qualifications other than experience and commitment. Anyone good at reasoning and the rhetorical arts can stand up in court and persuade a judge and a jury. But that is not enough to ‘be’ a lawyer. We expect certain understanding of ethics associated with that and with the use of evidence; numerous technical insights that ensure the practice of advocacy falls within common, standardised rules; we expect a commitment to certain cultural norms such as respect, compromise, and self-restraint; we certainly expect a lawyer to consciously carry with her some of the history of the profession. You don’t just train to be a lawyer – you are inducted into the role. Part of the unusualness of Trump is that he occupies the role but has never been through an induction – he, as it were, parachuted into it. It is also said that one can never be truly a member of a culture until you can tell a joke in it. Has Trump successfully told a political joke? If so it’s hard to tell it apart from one of his all-too-frequent grotesqueries.

So, in that sense, a Winfrey and a Trump can, indeed, become president-by-parachute – and forego the funnies. The boundaries around the practice of politics are highly permeable – there is no one to denounce you for being a – please excuse this – ‘fake’. We like the fact that anyone (with enough money and clout) can become president.

But this does not allow us to be licentious, to tear up rulebooks, to reduce our expectations of politicians. We are shocked when we see George W. Bush struggling to name a State leader or capital; we are indignant when we hear Richard Nixon using coarse language to describe coarse acts; we are dismayed when Donald Trump so casually dismisses years of diplomatic agreements and structures on the basis of whimsy, caprice and prejudice. We feel chilled when Dwight D. Eisenhower takes on the presidency and brings the dispositions of a wartime general to this highest civic post – relieved and celebratory when we realise that he successfully adapted his military judgement and skills to those needed to meet the demands of a presidency.

Eisenhower showed the refined skill and insights of a politician through many of his actions – passing socially progressive legislation as a Republican when House and Senate were Democrat; establishing NASA as a civilian organisation; first delaying and then helping to engineer the downfall of Joe McCarthy; and, in an act of stunning insight and reflection, warning the country of the influence of the “military-industrial complex”. Eisenhower, perhaps above other US presidents, shows that there are credentials that not only define you as ‘presidential material’, but which elevate you to presidential ‘statesmanship’.

There is, in this fuzzy concept of ‘statesmanship’, an echo of what we understand to be professional mastery. You can study Physics and master its content, but still not feel able to call yourself a ‘physicist’; paint and play an instrument but be cautious in putting ‘artist’ in your passport. Academics are often cautious about conferring the title of ‘scholar’ on a colleague. The shift from studying geography to being a ‘geographer’ involves an indwelling of identity, a sense of commitment, of the title describing who you feel yourself to have become. There has to be that sense of having been through a process of ‘becoming’.

It is easier to see this ineffable quality in politicians than to describe it. Churchill had it, as did Margaret Thatcher – but Tony Blair did not and neither does Theresa May. John Major has always tried to assume it, but it eludes him, whereas David Steele came to acquire it. Eisenhower and Roosevelt had it in spades – Nixon had the darker side of it. Many mourned the death of John F. Kennedy because he seemed to be so latent with those transcendental qualities.

Like the British constitution, that presidential and ‘statesman-like’ qualifications are not written down does not mean that they are not known and expected. We cannot disbar a presidential candidate on the basis of lack of credentials but this does not mean that we cannot challenge their legitimacy. Indeed, the US Election Primaries were designed specifically to test these credentials and expose their absence and to filter out the inappropriate candidates. We may recall that Trump’s surprising and iconoclastic election win was down to the final Party Convention at which reasonableness and compromise suggested that delegates would shrink from endorsing his Republican candidacy, even though he had chalked up enough votes to ensure it.

So, supporting Oprah Winfrey’s presidential ambitions is a way of making the Trump presidency a precedent – the affirmation that the unwritten rules just do not apply – that there is no skillset, the we depreciate of the value of statesmanship. It would be a continuation of the Trump presidency. Those who value those professional qualities and credentials in politicians are dismayed by the awful personal qualities of the man – his racism, misogyny, incompetence – but, in a deeper sense, by his betrayal of the whole notion of qualification. That same dismay would attend a Winfrey presidency, even though she may be a person of greater personal integrity and sympathy. Yes, we may well want a president to be drawn from the political class, to have been inducted into its culture – okay, to have been a frog in the Washington ‘swamp’.


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