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We don't have rational leadership

Aug 16, 2017

On the afternoon that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my seventh grade math teacher decided the best thing he could do was to ignore it.

He reasoned that what was going on in the nation had nothing to do with his job, which was to teach math to a classroom of Michigan kids, and so he carried on, or tried to, ignoring that some of the students were crying and few could focus.

I suspect the only thing any of his students remember about what he did that day was his irrational effort to act as if everything was normal. Since then, I’ve learned that what he did really wasn’t all that crazy. When the world collapses into chaos, it is human nature to find some little island of rationality to cling to. Statues of Robert E. Lee have been in the news a lot lately, but here’s a story about him you may not know.

On Sunday, April 2nd, 1865, Lee informed Jefferson Davis during a church service that Richmond, the capital of the confederacy could no longer be held. Davis responded by returning to his office and meticulously tidying it up before fleeing.

Sometimes, indeed, it is right to shut the world out, no matter what. A surgeon with a patient on the table has to ignore everything else, even if the President has just been assassinated, or if, as happened yesterday, the President of the United States indulges in a bizarre performance that casts doubt on not only his fitness for office but his sanity.

That’s not something I say lightly. I suggest, however, that instead of watching the entire bizarre episode, you take the old-fashioned analog step of reading a transcript of it.

NBC’s Brian Williams last night said words to the effect that yesterday afternoon proves that there’s no such thing as normal anymore when it comes to this presidency.

That’s certainly true. But beyond the assertions of things that plainly have no basis in fact, beyond the claims that he knows the facts and nobody else does, there was this bizarre moment.

Suddenly apropos of nothing, President Trump said:

“Does anyone know that I own a house in Charlottesville? I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States. It’s in Charlottesville.”

To me, this was as alarming as the lies and addressing a respected reporter as “fake news.” It is a clear indication that this President is unable to keep focused for more than a few moments on anything other than himself. I’ve read very widely in American history and can say that we’ve never had anything like this before.

So while I supposedly could have talked this afternoon about the state attorney general’s race or what might happen with NAFTA, I somehow couldn’t rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic today. We have an all-encompassing problem, and it is not limited to the chief executive’s willingness to legitimize hate groups.

For the present, we don’t have rational leadership. What happens now is anyone’s guess, but this is something that cannot be ignored, and that has implications for the world and for every county in Michigan from Allegan past Wexford to Wayne.

Journalists, including myself, thrive on excitement and breaking news.

Today, for the first time ever, I crave boring instead.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.