Tag Archives: the presidency

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Advantages of Ignoring the Bait

Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to correct them. But they are likely to ignore you.

Watching President Biden manage his presidency, I am impressed at how disciplined he is in not answering all of the criticisms that come his way. As a senator he was not always a study in forbearance. And he could showboat. But perhaps age and the burdens of managing an impossible federal bureaucracy have fed a clear desire to keep his focus on the bigger issues he has tried to manage.  He gets too little credit for successes in reshaping immigration practices on the southern border, doing what he can to stabilize inflation, becoming a predictable ally to our friends, and bringing some industrial jobs back to the U.S. No doubt he frustrates conflict-loving media, who would like nothing better than clips of snappy presidential retorts. He is not particularly good copy, at least compared to his two predecessors. But as an older man, he has freed himself from testosterone-fueled rage that so many in politics seek to display. Age has its virtues.  It is a disappointment that more Americans can’t see them.

Harry Truman Library of CongressPresident Harry Truman also sensed the high costs of becoming shrill. The former President had a hot temper. Even before he was elected, he had more than his share of critics. But his approach to not publicly respond to criticism made a lot of sense. In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation. But he usually didn’t mail them.  The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Retorts that Go Unheard

As I have noted here before, the psychological rewards of angry responses are overrated. Even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant. It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes. It’s a self-fulfilling process.  Others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas or acts; the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to systematically describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged. He equated the ability to make counterarguments as just another form of personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he noted that we should not allow ourselves to be pushed around. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that seem to need an equally aggressive return.

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The digital world easily brings our indignation to the fore. Many websites welcome comments, the majority of which are misguidedly protected with anonymity. And it is not just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude.  The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays and narratives seem to wilt in their absence. What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments? To make matters worse, some of us actually get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

There are many circumstances when the urge to respond is worth suppressing. Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding or hurtful, or simply the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down.

The psychological rewards are also overrated. Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to correct them. But they are likely to ignore you.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words can have at least two advantages. The first is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway.  We tend to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  The second advantage is that rapid responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. In addition, fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening.

Time gives us a better perspective. It allows us to anticipate how our responses will be judged. Most importantly, it helps us break the cycle where one wounding response is simply piled on top of another.

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Deconstructing Presidential Malfeasance


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Members of Congress have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers have done for years.

Congressional hearings have always functioned to shed light on darker corners of American life that the nation should see. And that is exactly the function of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The Committee is made up of 13 members of the House of Representatives, with the consent of the Speaker.  Given the gravity of the attack on the Capitol Building the very day the Congress was set to certify the 2022 election, the goal was to have a bipartisan group of members hold hearings. Readers will remember that Speaker Pelosi rejected a few Republicans opposed to any suggestion that the actions of the insurrectionists were seriously out of line.  Hence, the uber-debater Jim Jordan of Ohio and a few other Republicans were excluded, triggering what now looks like an overreaction by the leader of the minority to boycott the committee. As it stands, two Republican members in the old GOP mold remain. And if Liz Cheney is no longer a rising star within the chaos-voter end of the GOP, her stalwart focus has gained grudging admiration even from her father’s detractors. Cheney’s steady lawyering has given the group much-needed credibility.

As most now agree, the decision of non-participation made by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was a serious blunder, because the committee’s work has been riveting television. The GOP’s self-exclusion had the effect of streamlining the usual rambling hearing process by enabling a coherent narrative. And that wasn’t all. The members doubled down, designing their public meetings for television. Without Trump defenders, and with the tradition-breaking addition of scripted “questions” and edited video inserts, committee leaders made a clear path through the usual jungle of individual meanderings. To the bitter regret of Donald Trump, but maybe to the secret pleasure of some silent members of the GOP, the hearings have become a consistent narrative documenting serious malfeasance and likely sedition. The witness documentation of organizational rot in the West Wing has been extensive. The Committee has heard a compelling case that Trump and some of his aides wanted to undermine the constitutionally mandated process of certifying the election of Joe Biden.  As stunning as it is to write these words, they sought an insurrection to justify a coup.

A New Kind of Congressional Hearing

Could hearings with members reading their remarks from a teleprompter come across as more than a staged show trial of the MAGA crowd?  Most, including a lot of seasoned political columnists thought this strategic move, with its tv-producer managed video inserts, would backfire.  And some, including this writer, thought it was a violation of the spirit of congressional hearings. Witnesses have always been pre-interviewed, but not to this extent. Even so, the hearings—part documentary and partly a horror story of presidential collusion—have turned into a television hit. In some ways it is a sleeker reboot of the famous Watergate hearings in the 70s.  It’s designed in short scenes that can be easily understood.

Are these still “hearings?” Yes and no. The idea of a select group of members of Congress drilling down on a problem is an old one. But at least traditionally, there was room for dissenters and conflicting narratives. Most of that natural ambiguity has gone away. And perhaps scripting and coordinating member’s comments is a step too far.

But I don’t blame the congressional traditionalists for taking serendipity out of the process in favor of building a case against the administration. At best, members of the Committee have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers did for years. The full effect of the Committee’s work is yet to be known. But this fresh look undertaken by the institutionalists is indeed having a moment. We are lucky to have them to dramatize the insurrection for the otherwise distracted public.