“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.”
In a strong field, that may well be the finest lyric Paul Simon has ever written—and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the late former Mr. Marilyn Monroe.
Americans need their heroes—be they in sports, entertainment or maybe even politics—and they feel acutely vulnerable and adrift when those idols seem to vanish from the scene. This is particularly true in times of extraordinary distress and upheaval, such as (to pick a random example) a global public health emergency, when inspiring moral leadership is so urgently required.
For liberals who’ve been trapped in an existential funk since November 2016, one such hero is of course Barack Obama, the last U.S. president to exhibit any sort of compassion for his fellow human beings, who, unlike his wife, has made himself relatively scarce since exiting the White House more than three years ago.
That was until last weekend, when Obama made highly-anticipated dual virtual appearances before college and high school graduating classes of 2020—the latter televised in prime time—during which he intoned, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” The speeches did not include the word “Trump,” but we’re not stupid.
Whether by accident or design, these commencement addresses came on the heels of “leaked” remarks by the former president in a “private” conference call that saw him loudly and explicitly castigating the current administration both for its abysmal response to the coronavirus outbreak and its corrupt handling of the Michael Flynn case—words so forceful that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded, “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut.”
As a matter of political timing, Obama’s sort-of reentry into the cultural bloodstream is quite obviously related to the sort-of beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the presumed crowning of Obama’s former wingman, Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee. And certainly the party’s de facto standard-bearer has every right to publicly advocate for his hoped-for inheritor and the values he represents.
Beyond that, however, we, the people, have every reason to question whether McConnell had a point. That is, whether Obama’s broader commentary on the Trump administration is either wise or becoming of a member of the nation’s most exclusive club—namely, those who once had access to the nuclear codes and enjoy Secret Service protection to this day.
Indeed, the question of how ex-presidents should behave in retirement has been a matter of debate since March 1801, when John Adams opted to flee Washington, D.C., on horseback in the dead of night rather than attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson the following morning. In our own time—as with virtually everything else—the issue has broken along partisan lines, with Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton maintaining high profiles and busy schedules deep into their post-presidential years while Republicans like the Georges Bush have made a point of receding serenely into the background, content to have their records speak for themselves and their successors left to run the country in peace.
Old fogey-at-heart that I am, I’ve long had a soft spot for the latter approach to elder statesmanship, admiring of the discipline it must take not to gloat at everything the new guy is doing wrong.
In fact, Obama himself vowed to mostly adhere to the hands-off approach to ex-presidenting, telling reporters in January 2017 that, once Trump took office, he would refrain from open criticism except for “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.” In retrospect, considering the object of his prospective ire, perhaps that was Obama’s dry way of saying he had no intention of keeping his mouth shut and should not be expected to do so.
The real problem, in any case, is that Donald Trump is such a singularly appalling individual that remaining silent on his odious reign could reasonably be seen as a dereliction of duty for any self-respecting public figure—particularly one so devoted to appealing to the so-called “better angels of our nature.” In other words, the sheer awfulness of Trumpism—even compared to that of, say, George W. Bush—is sufficient to override the usual protocols of discretion among past presidents. These are not ordinary times, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
But here’s the thing: Part of the job of statesmanship is to be disingenuous every now and again for the sake of preserving the national fabric. Whatever one might think about Donald Trump, he is the duly-elected leader of our country for at least another eight months and maintains unshakable popularity among a not-insignificant chunk of our fellow citizens. As a head of state, he is entitled to a baseline deference that reflects the majesty of the office he holds, which transcends the character of whoever happens to hold it at a given moment in time.
When a retiring president passes the baton to his immediate successor, he is conferring legitimacy upon the most important public job in the United States—a hand-off in a constitutional relay race that has continued uninterrupted since George Washington peacefully ceded power to John Adams on March 4, 1797.
By then turning around and glibly musing to the nation’s schoolchildren that the sitting commander-in-chief has no Earthly idea what he’s doing, he risks ever-so-slightly chipping away at that legitimacy, rhetorically lowering the presidency to just one more partisan player in a vulgar federal political food fight, rather than the figurehead of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.
I say this in the full knowledge that Obama’s characterization of the Trump White House as a raging dumpster fire of incompetence is objectively, obviously correct. Nor am I under any illusion that the courtesy I am asking of Obama for Trump was ever extended to Obama himself at any point during his eight-year stint in the Oval Office. In effect, I am demanding a double standard whereby when the Republicans go low, the Democrats go high—a strategy that never seems to bear much fruit in the long run, however noble it may sound.
The plain truth is that there will be no good answer to this question until we have a new commander-in-chief. That the catchphrase of erstwhile conservative Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump touches dies,” extends to the presidency itself. That Trump is the exception to every rule, but once he’s gone, maybe we can return to life as it used to be, almost as if he never existed in the first place. Maybe.
In the meantime, with a pandemic raging and an economy cratering, the nation must turn its lonely eyes to someone, and while Joe DiMaggio is no longer available, I can think of at least one other Joe who is.