Cartoon by Andy Marlette
It’s the Wise Men vs. the wise guys in Trump’s America
The Washington Post: Geography, Napoleon is reputed to have remarked, is destiny, and this axiom came to our minds this week as we watched two very different but neighboring universes collide before the House Intelligence Committee. The ramrod-straight William B. Taylor Jr. and the bow-tied George Kent, two diplomats from the largely WASP ethos of the post-World War II foreign policy establishment, one headquartered at places such as the Council on Foreign Relations’ imposing Harold Pratt House at 68th Street and Park Avenue, found themselves bearing noble witness amid an impeachment imbroglio that may be best understood by an appreciation of the wilder mores of midtown Manhattan.
Only a few blocks away from the portrait-lined walls and genteel cocktails of the Council lies the real center of gravity in the politics of 2019: the gilded Trump Tower, built on the fluid morals and cutthroat deal-making of New York real estate. The Tower sits cheek-by-jowl (the image is chosen purposely) with the Grand Havana Room, a cigar club frequented by Rudy Giuliani, atop a Fifth Avenue building owned by the family of Jared Kushner. Walk a bit farther south — you don’t even need a Town Car — and you reach Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., home of Fox News and the New York Post.
To Trump supporters, the testimony Wednesday was the “deep state” surfacing briefly from the depths of white papers, institutional knowledge and a facility with U.S. military and diplomatic history. (Kent’s evocation of von Steuben and Lafayette was straight out of a Ward Just novel.)
To Trump’s critics and defenders of constitutional norms, the Republican narrative that the president’s threats to deny security assistance to Ukraine was just the kind of thing tough guys do (and, after getting caught, he didn’t do it!), suggested that tabloid hyperbole, Fox News arcana and New York hardball had replaced the real world. From the Long Telegram to Twitter, and from Averell Harriman to Sean Hannity: To borrow a phrase of Henry Adams, himself a scion of presidents, the current moment disproves Darwin.
The story of upended conventions and of a president who careens between self-parody and serious lawlessness is by now familiar, as old as the Age of Trump itself. The distinction is that the impeachment hearings have given us perhaps the clearest example yet of the triumph of political demimonde wise guys such as Trump, Giuliani and the Rogers Stone and Ailes over the latter-day Robert Lovetts and Dean Achesons. And it’s not just Wise Men, of course: Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice hailed from the establishment world, as do Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill.
The moment of decision between the Wise Men and the wise guys on Wednesday was subtle but nevertheless clear. It came when Rep. Michael R. Turner, a Republican, noted that diplomats such as Taylor and Kent “deal in words of understanding. Words of beliefs and feelings, because in your profession, that’s what you work with to try to pull together policy.” Theirs, the lawmaker was implying, was almost a touchingly naive way of life in which one trusted what one was told, assumed the fundamental truthfulness of, say, a presidentially appointed ambassador, and believed that a president himself meant what he said.
No longer: The midtown game of wheeling and dealing, often done over a cigar at the Grand Havana or perhaps an overpriced steak at 21, has now gone global as the denizens of Trump’s neighborhood run shadow foreign policy ops seeking 2020 election help and good paydays.
Had any other president, Taylor was asked, linked official aid in the American interest to private or political benefit? With a stoicism and brevity that would’ve made George Marshall quietly proud, Taylor replied, “No.”
To be sure, the establishment has been far from perfect, its fall from preeminence more than partly self-inflicted. Elite education and conventional expertise don’t guarantee good results, and America has been shaped by the battle between the privileged and the populist since long before Andrew Jackson. More recently, there was Vietnam writ large, and intelligence failures like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Grass-stained ideals of fair play learned on the playing fields of Groton could seem like forlorn hopes on the streets Basra or Baghdad. And the semi-aristocrats of places like Pratt House and the Century Association had a way of turning up their noses at the lesser mortals of Trump’s bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
Alger Hiss once inflamed a young congressman named Richard Nixon when he turned to Nixon, who was about to ask some probing questions about Hiss’s ties to the Kremlin, and sneered, “My law school was Harvard. Yours, I believe, was Whittier?” (Actually, it was Duke.) No wonder Nixon could sell himself as a man of the people when Hiss turned out to be a communist spy.
Such establishment condescension also fueled the rise of Joe McCarthy and of McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who served as lawyer and mentor in the 1970s and ’80s to a young developer from Queens who was looking to make it big in Manhattan. And Donald Trump never forgot a thing Cohn taught him. (One particularly relevant lesson today: Confronted with a tough case to argue, Cohn would say that he didn’t need to know what the law was — just who the judge was.)
In midtown Manhattan, Trump learned to dominate the news — in his rise, that meant the New York Post, with its screaming, one-sourced stories, an early harbinger of the presidential Twitter strategy. He learned the power of TV. And he learned that tough guys — or “killers,” in a favorite approbation of Trump’s — like Ailes, who presided over this stew of often-abusive power, money and misinformation, were the kinds of guys he could count on.
For one thing was certain: The Wise Men of 68th Street or the United Nations or any of the traditional institutions of expertise weren’t his guys. The question America now faces in impeachment and, should Trump prevail, in the 2020 election, is whose New York will serve us best in the long run — the wise guys’ or the Wise Men’s?
Jon Meacham is the author, most recently, of “The Soul of America.” Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas co-authored “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made” in 1986.