“REMEMBER THOU ART MORTAL!” DONALD TRUMP NEEDS HELP. THIS ARTICLE EXPLAINS WHY AND WHAT MUST BE DONE TO SAVE A TROUBLED PRESIDENCY.
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
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.
Author’s program note. My mother is dead now. But I want you to know that hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of her… not in some idealized fashion either. For she was a vibrant, beautiful creature whose reality, for me, even if flawed, was more compelling than any fairy tale I might make up. And as for charm, why she was a by-word for that; I knew that before I even knew what charm could lead to. Some say that along with her penetrating eyes I inherited my full measure of that charm too. I leave that to you to find out.
This article is being written because it gives me the perfect opportunity to remember her… not just vaguely… but as she was and remains in my mind’s eye, a real woman, my much loved and often argued with mother. Here I am able to indulge myself in the most profound memories, certain that I am writing this article for you… not just for myself. And because the woman is important and the day I am recalling here one of the handful of truly special days of her life (so she often told me afterwards), I savor every word as I think it, write it, consider it, review it — and if not perfect and exactly so, change it. For there is not a word here or even a comma that I can accept in any other way. For you see, this was one of the handful of truly special days of my life… and I want you to share it and know why.
Thomas Gray, treasured poet.
Where did my mother’s love affair with England and her poets begin? I cannot say, but I can recall that wherever we lived its premises were littered with the lyric beauty of the English language… where words mattered, where understanding them mattered, where using them to maximum effect mattered, and where a word was never an obstacle but a friend not yet known well enough, but welcome for all that. As such, books, rarely closed, always open with makeshift book marks were found in every room. We read as effortlessly as we breathed… and the splendor of language surrounded us, shaped us, sustained us… and no one more than my mother for whom poets were accounted special beings well deserving of the veneration they received from her… and in due course from me. And so the profound love between a mother and her first-born son was made manifest in the poems we discovered and shared, the readings of such poems to each other, and the meanings we strove to find… especially for me when she was gone before. Then these bonds mattered most of all.
Thomas Gray, 26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771, just 54 years old.
Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London, the son of an exchange broker and a milliner. He was the fifth of 12 children… 11 of whom died in infancy. the smell of death permeated his young world… a constant visitor to his home, a constant reality where birth and mourning seemed inextricably linked and inevitable. And so he grew up wondering whether his own expected demise was nigh, accelerated by his abusive father. This recurring thought shaped his life, his outlook, and his poems. Later in life Gray became known as one of the “Graveyard poets” of the late 18th century, along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. But for Gray this was not a pose; he had been to the graveyard too often too early for that. Death and Gray were on intimate terms from the start.
His sense of humor.
For all that Gray’s life was turbulent and difficult, it had moments of unalloyed joy, not least because he had the valued knack of seeing the humorous side of even the most oppressive subjects. It is good to see he skewered the masters of Peterhouse at Cambridge University as “mad with Pride” and the Fellows of this College as “sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things.” It was the kind of thing I wrote to my college friends, too, and I knew the joy of such characterizations.
My mother knew I wrote these kinds of acid word pictures; I sent them to her, and she carefully tied them with ribbons adding her own often equally acid responses. These, too, bonded us; we laughed together. Too, there were other traits which may have made her see me in Gray: he spent his time indoors, voracious reader, avoiding athletics and exercise of any kind. But when the companionship of his friends was offered, he was a crowd pleaser with the apt, devastating mot at the ready. Gray and I might have been siblings; surely Kindred Spirits… she must have seen this… and if so have approved.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.
Thus, my mother traveled to England where I was then working on my first book and asked me to accompany her to the setting of one of her favorite poems, the “Elegy” written slowly, painstakingly between 1742 and 1750. She had waited a lifetime for this excursion… and so she and I on Mother’s Day went hand-in-hand to the ancient village of Stoke Poges, to the churchyard of the Church of England parish church of St. Giles. There great Gray’s remains repose for the numberless ages, his monument weathered, tilted, too much too illegible, special torment for this man of perfect wording.
We had come hence to see, to learn, to venerate…. and in the graveyard to read the “Elegy”, together, in turn, lyrically, each word a pledge to love each other now and forever, though I didn’t know its purpose then.
She had her tattered, well-thumbed Gray in hand, so did I.
So we commenced the reading, the first stanza hers by right to intone:
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/ The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/ The ploughman homeward plods his weary way/ And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”
We are borne on these words to the place we most want to be with the person in this sublime moment we both wish most to be with.
Thus we walked and read together from the celebrated words which British General James Wolfe read to his officers September 12, 1759 the day before he was killed in battle, saying “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.” It was an admission made by thousands of those who have thrilled to these sonorous words and their eternal relevance to struggling mankind.
‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”
Now my mother has gone the way of all flesh, the way we all must trod in time. We know such an end is natural but that does not assuage the bitter grief and finality of the matter, particularly when the dear departed is one’s mother. This loss is bitter indeed at whatever age it occurs.
Thomas Gray knew all this and in his beloved “Elegy”, popular from the moment of publication, popular still, he gave us all the words we need to cope, find hope and resignation — and the words of remembrance and above all of love.
Thus whenever I miss her and want her near me in all her humanity and that dazzling smile I can never forget, I take down from the clutter of my library her copy of Gray’s “Elegy” and read it aloud, as we did that memorable Mother’s Day so very long ago. Whenever possible I go to any search engine and play Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor (published 1738). It was one of Gray’s favorites and perfect accompaniment to his surgically precise words.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power/ And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave/ Awaits alike the inevitable hour/ The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
But not, with God’s help and with Thomas Gray’s, to the dark void of forgetfulness and oblivion. They have given us the joys of memory and the words we need to summon it –and our loved ones — at will and thus they live again in us.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.