By Joe Registrato, Contributing Editor
In what is now the aftermath of our national labor, as the dust begins to settle from the excruciating pain we have suffered picking a president, now that our collective screaming and writhing is almost over, shouldn’t we see the monster staring at us from the edge of the woods? He speaks in a loud and clear voice, yet we do not seem to see him or hear his loud growling.
No matter what our choice of leader may be, intelligent men and women of all colors, religions, and persuasions, liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, even those on the radical right, should see what one single dictatorial, authoritarian person with obvious mental obsessions and obvious selfish motives is capable of when he gains a certain popular appeal, when he reaches a leadership position in a major American political party. A person who attains this measure of popularity, even if his method is through a certain coarseness that appeals to the lower, primitive human instincts, such as greed and fear and hatred and racism, a person like this can and will fan the flames of the basest kind of human thought, disrupt and destroy what used to be a common sense, deliberate and thoughtful process. He can and will turn a peaceful march into a stampede, he can and will turn an orderly group of calm, peaceful and thinking humans into a herd of buffalo that knows nothing of the cliff to which he is guiding them.
There are many who believe in Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but even those should be able to see through it should see that a man who has been for all his 70 years nothing but an opportunist and self-centered narcissist, can lend them no helping hand, give them no guiding light, provide no answer to whatever may be their grievances.
I am a journalist and a lawyer, with no detailed knowledge of such things as national economic policies, how jobs are “created,” if such a concept can even be discussed with any concrete result; nor do I have the answers to many of the problems a president would face, national health care, national security, seeing that the armed forces are equipped with all they need without being wasteful.
But, being an old man and having been a newspaper reporter for right around 20 years, covering politics and government among other things, and a criminal defense and family law lawyer for about the same time, and having grown up in New York with a rather straightforward and no-nonsense father, I do think I have a sense about people, their values and motives and general worth, about whether I can trust them and whether I can depend on them in a pinch. I am fairly confident in this knowledge.
Our political system has produced some interesting characters, some solid, patriotic and well-meaning, others flatly crooked. Our system for choosing these people is democratic, that is true, but can at times look more like an inflamed mob out to kill rather than a committee made up of calm, rational thinkers who research, vote and compromise.
My earliest recollection of the process was the Eisenhower-Stephenson election in 1952. I was just a kid, but an editor I knew once told me that one of the lasting images of that election was a hole in the bottom of Stephenson’s shoe. An enterprising photographer got the picture when Stephenson crossed his legs and, in today’s parlance, the shot went viral. The Republicans used the image to make Stephenson out to be a kind of country bumpkin, although he was governor of Illinois at the time. Stephenson tried to take advantage of the picture by making it a campaign slogan: “A hole in the shoe is better than a hole in the head.”
Despite the fact that Stephenson was a smart guy and said some terrific stuff (“Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime,)” he lost to Eisenhower twice, in 1952 and again in 1956. (The quote would have sounded good coming from Hillary, don’t you think?) Another thing he said was “never run for President against a war hero,” which Eisenhower surely was.
History would probably say that Eisenhower was a good president, he was honest and strong and popular. People liked him.
What history goes very light on, however, is that Eisenhower provided the impetus to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. And while it was not a huge issue while Eisenhower was president, if he would have known how that thing came out, he probably would never have started the thing in the first place. So while hindsight is 20-20, if the Vietnam War was a big mistake, which most historians would agree it was, the very first blame might belong in Eisenhower’s column.
The next wing-dinger was Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, which was the first election in which they had televised debates. I remember more about this one, although I was still just a kid. Kennedy looked good on television, smiling and tanned, while Nixon sweated profusely and seemed fidgety and uncomfortable. Nixon also had a case of 5 o’clock shadow that nobody was able to fix. Kennedy won the election by only 100,000 votes, but carried many of the big states and so won in the Electoral College. I made a bet with my father that Nixon would win, which of course I lost.
Now people loved John F. Kennedy. He was a national hero before he was assassinated and admittedly a terrific president, who backed the communists down in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But remember this, Kennedy was the one who really geared up the Vietnam War. He didn’t like the idea of it, but he went along with recommendations of his advisers and sent thousands of troops to Vietnam while he was president. So, remember that, please, when measuring Kennedy.
But as a process of getting elected, the Kennedy-Nixon debates were nothing even close to the show that Clinton and Trump have put on. By comparison, Nixon and Kennedy might have been having a quiet talk at Sunday school rather than screaming at each other and calling each other as liars and cheats. So things have somehow become a lot less civilized in the 56 years since Kennedy and Nixon went at it.
The emotional impact of the Clinton/Trump show has been exacerbated, I think, by the bombast that is Trump, his characteristic outlandish claims fanning the flames of hatred and fear all across the country for what seems like a year now. But as outrageous and traumatic as they have been for the nation, the emotions stirred up by Trump’s rages do not compare to what the country experienced in 1963.
It’s not exactly on point because it wasn’t an election, but the transfer of power in 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took over for Kennedy after Kennedy was assassinated, was as gut wrenching and traumatic an experience as could be imagined for those of us who watched it unfold. The photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office and the photograph of Kennedy’s son, who looked to be 4 or 5 years old, saluting the casket that held Kennedy’s body, are burned into the national consciousness.
Johnson remained in office for another five years, but in 1968 the Vietnam War changed everything. The war had been going on for more than ten years by then and Americans were sick and tired of it. Although the number of Americans killed and wounded in Vietnam has been widely miscalculated, we now know almost 60,000 were lost. Johnson absorbed most of the blame for keeping the war going, and he no doubt deserved it, but he also started the Paris peace talks, which might have ended the war if things turned out differently. But in 1968, massive anti-war protests disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Johnson decided not to run again.
Johnson secretly planned to run against Nixon, but according to tapes he made at the time which are now available, he backed out at the last minute and let Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey be nominated to run against Nixon. Nixon won in 1968, but the Vietnam War did not end. In fact, evidence has been uncovered recently that points to Nixon’s involvement in keeping the war going even before he was elected.
The story of Richard Nixon from the time he was elected in 1968 to the time he resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal in 1974 is a story of audacity and misuse of power that should be a lesson about what can go wrong when the President of the United States decides to flex his muscles.
Nixon appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate mess, but when that special prosecutor got a little too close to uncovering the truth, Nixon ordered his Attorney General and deputy attorney general to fire him and appoint a new one. When both men refused to carry out the order, Nixon fired them both. It was called the Saturday Night Massacre and all Americans were again traumatized by events that seemed like they only happened in dictatorships and banana republics.
Nixon finally resigned and the vice president, Gerald Ford, took over the job of running the country in 1974.
The next traumatic and grueling election story was especially emotional for people living in Florida, as the recount of Florida votes went on for weeks, until the United States Supreme Court ruled that counting certain votes should stop, a ruling that resulted in Florida’s electoral votes going to George Bush rather than Al Gore. It took more than a month of fighting, mostly in court, to finally decide who would be “delivered” as president.
America is just about over its latest election process, and it looks to me more like an unruly mob than a group of smart, thinking people. I lay the blame for what has occurred at the feet of Donald Trump and those who, for reasons I cannot fathom, blindly support him. I can only hope those who hung their hat on this man’s promises will learn from experience what a wolf in a sheep’s skin looks like.
Joseph J. Registrato is a journalist and lawyer. He was a news reporter, assistant city editor, city editor and assistant managing editor of The Tampa Tribune from 1971 to 1987. After graduation from Stetson College of Law, he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1989, and was an assistant state attorney with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office from 1989 through 1991. He was in the private practice of law for more than twenty years in the areas of family law, criminal defense and appellate practice. He is now an assistant public defender at the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office of Julianne Holt. He is a U. S. Marine Corps veteran and served in the conflict in the Republic of Vietnam in 1968-1969. Registrato is a contributing editor of AliveTampaBay.com.