Rahm Emanuel praised Obama as ‘‘the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has faced.” He fought back tears as he thanked his wife and three children, seated in the front row of the East Room for the farewell ceremony.
That’s how the New York Times described Rahm Emanuel’s leave-taking as President Obama’s chief of staff. We all say nice things on such occasions. I have no idea whether Rahm Emanuel’s departure was his own idea or whether he suddenly discovered a life-long desire to run for mayor of Chicago to cover for the fact he was being asked to walk the plank.
Inside-the-Beltway folks care deeply about such things. I don’t. For me, it’s enough to judge the stew that comes out of the kitchen; I don’t care too much if the chefs are making nice with each other behind the kitchen door.
Many commentators have written about narcissism and the self-referential nature of this administration, but the ideas Emanuel expressed in his farewell remarks are really over the top. Can he really think these are the “toughest times” any president has faced?
When their fellow Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln, was elected, seven states quickly seceded. Trying to staff his new administration, President-elect Lincoln said he felt like a man trying to rent rooms in the front of his house while the back of it was on fire. Lincoln had to be spirited into Washington, D.C., avoiding a near-certain assassination attempt in Baltimore. At his Inauguration, the Army’s top general, Winfield Scott, had stationed sharpshooters on every rooftop lining the parade route from the Capitol to the White House.
“Old Fuss and Feathers,” they called the huge, gouty war hero, but Gen. Scott made sure Lincoln could take the oath without violence. If anyone tried to disrupt the new President’s taking office, Winfield Scott said, he had cannon prepared and would “manure the Virginia hills with their bodies.” Those were tough times.
President Obama is often compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt, when his worshipful friends in the media are not comparing him to God. President-elect Roosevelt took a drive in an open car in Miami, just weeks before his scheduled March 4th Inauguration in 1933.
Seated beside FDR was Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago. An unemployed carpenter, Giuseppe Zangara, dashed out of the crowd and fired point-blank at Roosevelt. He missed FDR and hit instead Mayor Cermak. The Secret Service ordered the President-elect’s limousine to speed away, leaving the mortally wounded Cermak in the care of medics on the scene. FDR overruled his security detail and demanded the car go back for Cermak.
Soon afterward, he walked to the Inaugural podium with assistance to compensate for his polio-crippled legs. He looked out at the thousands of hopeful, expectant faces and said: “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” Now, those were tough times. Banks all over the country were closed or collapsing. Armed guards had to be stationed on U.S. Mail trucks. O
r, consider young John F. Kennedy. Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev had bullied him at their Vienna Summit meeting, threatening nuclear war over divided Berlin. When in the summer of 1961, Khrushchev tore that city apart with his ugly, brutal Berlin Wall, Kennedy had to tread carefully to avoid World War III. A year later, Khrushchev again tested the inexperienced President Kennedy by placing deadly nuclear missiles 90 miles from our shores in Communist Cuba. Kennedy coolly stared down the Kremlin boss’ deadly gambit. He forced Khrushchev to remove the missiles in the most intense U.S.-Soviet confrontation since World War II.
Everyone likes to think their own times are toughest, that their own trials are greatest. For Rahm Emanuel to praise his boss is not out of line, but he clearly knows little of this country’s powerful past if he thinks President Obama’s ordeals are the toughest.
The fact that we Americans faced the crisis of the Civil War and came through it, overcame the hardships of the Great Depression, and prevailed over an Evil Empire in what JFK called that “long twilight struggle” should give this administration cause for confidence. Knowing our past and appealing to our people’s courage and resilience should be a source of strength for us to face the challenges of today. But, obviously, Rahm Emanuel knows little of these things.
Does his boss know them better? If so, we have yet to hear about it.