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Bob Rees and Clifton Jolley: One great president and one not

President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, May 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? … his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”

— Leo Tolstoy

In “The Irony of American History,” Reinhold Niebuhr writes of the “absurd juxtapositions” of weakness and strength in our history. A recent example of that juxtaposition was the Fox News broadcast of an interview with Donald Trump that used as its prop the interior of the Lincoln Memorial.

According to The New York Times, holding such an event inside the Lincoln Memorial trespasses “a boundary protected by federal law .” But what most impressed us was not the disregard for law (Trump has disregarded so many) but the disproportion in stature: Lincoln looming large as a solemn, dignified statesman. Trump shrunk to a reality television huckster.

And one could not but remark on the different attitudes of the two presidents: Lincoln contemplative, humbled by the grave duty of the presidency; Trump proud, self-aggrandizing and accusing.

“I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no other president has ever seen,” Trump said. Pointing to the statue of Lincoln, he added, “The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln. Nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”

Of course. Everything about Trump is believed by Trump to be more than has been done or suffered by anyone in history. And anyone who does not agree with his self-aggrandizement and absurd inflation of personal accomplishment is likely to be ridiculed by a president who has done less and worse than any of those he seeks to defame.

Trump being interviewed within the hallowed space of the Lincoln Memorial is obscene. Trump comparing the abuse he suffers with the suffering of Lincoln is grotesque.

But as preposterous as his self-absorption and boasting may be, it is no more ridiculous than his lack of curiosity and his inability to grasp irony or to appreciate the ironic moment. So, its unlikely Trump would have been humbled if the PR team from Fox pretending to be reporters had drawn his attention to the engraving on the north interior wall of the shrine that repeats words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Trump, who inflicts more wounds than can soon be bound up, who continues to divide the country Lincoln gave his life to unite.

In her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the genius and generosity of Lincoln as characterized by, “his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes.”

Whether or not you support the politics or forgive the personality and lack of character of President Trump, and whether or not you agree with us that the Lincoln Memorial was an inappropriate setting for Donald Trump or Fox News to stage so pompous and false a presentation, perhaps we can agree that neither Tolstoy’s nor Goodwin’s description of the one president will ever be confused as a description of the other.

Robert A. Rees

Bob Rees, Ph.D., teaches religion at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.

Clifton Jolley

Clifton Jolley, Ph.D., is president of Advent Communications, Ogden.

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