In the days of Ancient Rome, victorious generals were permitted a Triumph. A Triumph was the greatest honor a conquering hero could get and so lavish and important that for the next few days after it occurred, the general was near to God-like status and treated accordingly.
Of course the powers that be were happy for the victory, but they also knew that any general with an army at his instant command could produce chaos and unwanted political instability. Thus each Triumph had to be carefully planned, measured, and controlled. As part of this process of keeping the Triumphal general in check, a public slave was placed on the chariot of the conqueror; his job was to whisper in his ear these chilling words, “Remember thou art mortal!”. You can imagine that no conqueror ever took kindly to such remarks, but he submitted for his own good and the good of the Republic.
Now, Donald Trump finds himself driving a chariot which is going every which way to the consternation of the people who want good government and a nation they can be proud of. There is no one now in the White House or in Trump’s inner circle to give plain, simple, timely advice to the President. There is no one in his present circle who can simply tell him the God’s honest truth.
This is causing disruptions for the good ship United States because no one is at the rudder. Thus this vessel lists, founders, reverses and veers in muddle and confusion. What can be done? What indeed… Right now advisers dispense information from many directions and for many reasons. These advice givers include Steve Bannon (Chief Strategist), Kellyanne Conway (Counselor to the President), Jared Kushner (Special Adviser to the President and Head of the White House Office of American Innovation), Reince Priebus (White House Chief of Staff), and Ivanka Trump (Special Adviser to the President).
Here is the situation. These people, no matter how bright, no matter how seemingly attached to the President are not and cannot be unvarnished truth tellers of the utmost integrity and discretion. Each of these people is an employee, admittedly at a high level, but no employee no matter how well placed, can ever give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, It just cannot be done, especially in the White House where the Presidential incense blowing never stops.
That is why previous Presidents have invited well placed individuals, knowledgeable, loyal, without an ax to grind to assist them. These people are appointed to provide the truth as they understand it, keeping the President focused and quash silly ideas of which the Trump Administration has come up with more than its share.
On my first visit to the White House when Jimmy Carter was President, I saw this incense wafting machine at its full speed. I was taken into the Executive Office and went behind the scene where the White House staff was situated. It was like the harem of the Ancient Ottomans where the President can see no evil, speak no evil and do no evil. You were either in this circle, this charmed circle, or you were not. It was very heady stuff indeed. But it is not what is needed now or in any Presidency to keep the President real, not merely the unquestioned sovereign of the hive.
To show you what I mean, I wish to introduce you to Colonel Edward Mandell House (1858- 1938). You may not know of him now, may never have known anything previously about this once powerful American diplomat, politician and adviser to then President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).
Colonel House, as he was familiarly known, had a challenging task; he assisted a prickly, self-satisfied, difficult man move from the back waters of New Jersey politics, from author, from President of Princeton University and then thanks to a split in the Republican Party in 1912, President of the United States. He was deft indeed, but Wilson needed the help and at this point in his astonishing career admitted it.
Like so many academics he thought himself superior to everyone; thought that he was sent from God himself to the White House to be His agent and keep those blessings flowing. House played a pivotal role in the 1912 Presidential Election and kept the campaign organization purring by focusing on the big picture, the Presidential picture. Although Woodrow Wilson upon election offered him any Cabinet post (except Secretary of State), House made the calculated decision that he would better serve Wilson and the nation by remaining outside of the formal Ins and Outs of the presidency.
As he saw it, his task was keeping Woodrow Wilson on track, focused on the achievement of his expansive and important agenda. This agenda became even more important when World War I broke out in Europe and President Wilson had to lead a reluctant and skeptical nation. All of a sudden this very sharp tongued, egotistical, academically inclined, bookish President became the most important man on earth; the man who could either refrain from taking the United States to war thereby gambling the future of all of Europe and Western Civilization or chivvy the nation bit by cautious bit to bring the nation into the war.
Of course everyone in the nation, indeed everyone on earth, had an opinion on what President Wilson should do, how he should do it, and to what extent he should do it. Here is where Colonel House fit in.
By now House was not only advising the President as executive agent; the title invented for him. He actually had his own apartment in the White House so he could slip in and out at will without the slightest recognition beyond the President himself. From the time the British passenger liner “Lusitania” was sunk by a German U-Boat (May 7th 1915) drowning 128 Americans, Colonel House was in the very center of all the developments in the fast-developing war. He became Wilson’s private and personal agent on such matters as Wilson’s 14 points, the Treaty of Versailles, and the Covenant of the League of Nations. This was important work indeed, and Colonel House did it in an exemplary fashion which is to say he was honest, discrete, totally dedicated, and loyal to Woodrow Wilson and his agenda.
First of all he was a man of the world. He had traveled widely, had business success, helped elect 4 governors of Texas and advise them. He even wrote a political novel which if not a best seller, certainly presented ideas which he would later present to President Wilson. He also believed strongly in Wilson’s progressive liberal ideas.
House knew when to push and when to hold Wilson back. His job was to ensure Wilson’s best ideas were presented to the public and his less good ideas thrust aside; all without irritating this very temperamental man. Wilson like so many prima donnas, did not want to believe or acknowledge that any one knew more than he did, and he believed he was the most important man in the world. Colonel House held the executive hand, and always always said the appropriate thing for the moment. Just one notable example will go to prove the point and show House’s importance and insight.
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in other words the government body which could make or break Wilson’s 14 points and League of Nations. By now Wilson who believed, that he has been sent by God himself to save the world from woe and affliction. He had advised kings and queens, presidents and heads of state and was certain that he knew better than they did. Wilson believed he knew how to craft the new world order, a point of view easy to believe because millions of people worldwide had come to venerate and believe in this man whose name they screamed “Wilson, Wilson, Wilson!”
By this time Colonel House knew if the new world order was to have a League of Nations; a key point of Wilson’s message, many more people beside Wilson himself would have to be involved in the process. It could not be, could never be done by any single man no matter how beloved of the desperate people yearning for freedom, peace, and serenity. But of course by this time Wilson walked on water; he didn’t like Senator Lodge, and he definitely did not want to hear anything from him on this matter or any other matter.
Thus Colonel House, who saw the big picture, advised the President that Senator Lodge must be a part of the American delegation along with other key Republican senators. The President was adamant, no way; no how, don’t even think of it. It was a measure of how petty and out of control Wilson could be and how much he needed discrete, honest, thoughtful, and carefully considered advice. Wilson’s decision to blackball Lodge was the beginning of the end, for Wilson, for the tragic millions in Europe who needed all the help they could get, and for Colonel House himself. It didn’t happen overnight but it happened soon enough.
House had been asked to provide advice, and he had done so. Woodrow Wilson like the Roman generals who traveled with the public slave on their chariot, whispering in their ears, “Remember Thou Art Mortal!” Woodrow Wilson heard it and was irritated by it Thus he went forward to do battle with his own demons, alone, for towards the end of his life, the pressure he had created for himself induced a series of strokes which left this once most important man in the world playing out his last months in a dim room in the White House while his second wife Edith, tried to keep the Wilson Administration from falling apart, a story far too many Americans have never heard about our first woman President.
Perhaps by now she didn’t like House or his unprecedented access to the White House. Many people credited her with easing House out. Perhaps by now Colonel House had had enough; it is after all a difficult feat, to keep a head strong leader, prone to self-glorification on track, on the modest trail where he must admit and work with others.
Now then keeping Colonel House in mind, let us advise The Donald. He desperately needs a friend, a confidante, a detached adviser familiar with the Ins and Outs of Washington DC; whose sole task is to help the President and help America. Such a person doesn’t exist in the White House today. This is why the current administration resembles the Keystone Cops, smart people doing stupid, pointless things in the full glare of today’s modern media, where a small mistake can be magnified in the world media in seconds.
Take a breath now, Mr. President, and admit you need help, help that your leading advisers cannot provide because in the long run you don’t listen to them and only follow your own counsel; this is the greatest calamity of all.
“Remember Thou Art Mortal!”
You are the President of the greatest country in the world. You cannot have a finger in every pie, and you cannot have different advisers running in and out of your office with policy ideas which are contradictory and are all too often ill considered, vague and, dubious.
Consider then your predecessor Woodrow Wilson and his independent executive agent Colonel House. They forged a model which you could use to your advantage.
Remember intelligence is knowing what you don’t know and knowing where to find it; not bluffing your way from crisis to crisis holding the country and the world to ransom and all of us in it.