As an editorialist of forty years’ standing, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House. Normally, pundits are able to step back from the passion of events and offer a few words of reassurance. After all, things aren’t so bad, folks, we say. Remember back in 1983 or 1968 or 1951? They seemed impossibly grim then, and we came out all right.
For all of its 241 years of history, America has come out all right. Sometimes (like in 1861 or 1933 or 1939) it didn’t seem certain. Too many times it took too long – most notably Jim Crow, slavery and the McCarthy Era.) But again and again, our country has been blessed with wise and cautious leaders in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and most of all in the Presidency. Names like Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Arthur Vandenberg, Earl Warren, Dwight Eisenhower, and Elliot Richardson come to mind. Barbara Jordan and Jeannette Rankin, Marlow Cook and Theodore Roosevelt also do. And even some leaders who worried us at times didn’t turn out so bad. Include among them Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who seem these days like the souls of tolerance, good sense and humor.
Now, in this first week of February, I have to admit I am unable to offer similar assurances. The historically unprecedented first fourteen days of the Trump administration has been an insult to every American, whether he or she voted for the new president or not. Here we have a business tycoon who made a hit on television by yelling at people words like “loser,” “You’re fired!” and the like. I’m sure he would call me a “loser” and a “weakling.” I am proud to be so, if he is the judge.
He scowls in his official portrait. However, he did beam as he signed the executive order that snuffed the flame of freedom for untold numbers of Muslims seeking the solace from torture, persecution and even death. He beams when he cuts off low-interest loans for the poor, sticks 1,000 pins into the Affordable Care Act and fails to mention the word “Jewish” in his Holocaust Remembrance Day remarks.
In other words, he is betraying, action by action, the very stuff of what it means to be an American, and a true leader.
Emma Lazarus was a New York-born writer whose 1883 poem was engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As schoolchildren, we memorized this poem in school, and we stood together recite it. How tragic that he has betrayed almost every word of it.
The Statue itself is a symbol of what we as Americans hold dear. We are, as President Kennedy once said, “A Nation of Immigrants.” Whether our ancestors came on their own, fled some persecution or were hauled here in bondage, the land they have inherited is the unique product of all these people. And so it remains.
For now, I can only pray and hope that Emma Lazarus’ words can once again inspire us, and that our America is open to all people and all faiths, even if they disagree with prevailing thought. Here is her message:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”