“He can’t help retaliating”

I heard that line on a Slate Political Gabfest. The question had to do with Donald Trump’s response to things he thinks of as insults. He hits back hard. [1] Hitting back hard” takes the place of “running a disciplined campaign” according Ruth Marcus, a writer for the Washington Post.  There’s no telling what it would look like in the White House.

I think it was the line “hitting back hard” that lodged in my mind and my thoughts kept revolving around it until I remembered what I was trying to remember. Very early in his presidency, Jed Bartlet wanted to hit back hard and had to be talked out of it. When I say “early in his presidency,” I am talking about The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 3. Really early. Here is President Bartlet’s starting position.


Note the general who proposes the unthinkable. “Sir, are you suggesting that we carpet bomb Damascus?” Eventually—it takes nearly the whole show to get there—Bartlet says not to do that and he settles on what Admiral Fitzwallace calls “a proportional response.”

My concern is that the Trump response—hit back hard—couldn’t be impeded even by all that assembled brass. And if President Trump had answered, “Yes, carpet bombing Damascus is what we ought to do. It’ll teach them a lesson,” then it would be done. That’s what worries me.

It wasn’t all that easy to talk President Bartlet down from that particular tree. Admiral Fitzwallace has put together a “response scenario,” as President Bartlet asked. Here it is.

Yes, sir. Mr. President we put together a scenario by which we attack Hassan airport. Its three main terminals and two runways. In addition to the civilian causalities, which could register in the thousands, the strike would temporally cripple the region’s ability to receive medical supplies and bottled water.

That is a very specific look at what would happen to a lot of Syrians. [2] The goal of Fitzwallace’s use of details, I think, is to get the President to realize what he is doing. He is not “docking someone’d damn allowance;” he is killing thousands of civilians.

But I think Fitzwallace’s second argument is even better. Here it is.

I think Mr. Cashmen and Secretary Hutchinson would each tell you what I’m sure you already know sir. That this strike would be seen at home and abroad as a staggering overreaction by a first time Commander in Chief. That without the support of our allies, without a Western Coalition, without Great Britain and Japan and without Congress, you’ll have doled out a five thousand dollar punishment for a fifty buck crime sir.

Fitzwallace wants President Bartlet to look at himself the way everyone else is going to look at him. He is, for all practical purposes, a rookie. Fitzwallace is not a rookie and he wants to keep the Commander in Chief from making a rookie mistake. I think that is superb staff work.

According to the recollections of people who were in the room when President Obama had to make the decision about the Osama bin Laden mission, he had that kind of support around the table. The Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense all leaned on him and helped him see what he would be doing if he said “Go.” He said it anyway.

If there is anyone in Donald Trump’s entourage who has that kind of effect on him, I haven’t read about it. He needs that, even as a candidate. As the Commander in Chief in the War Room, he would need it much more.

In Bartlet’s case, Fitzwallace was enough to get the President to make the prudent decision, but he wasn’t enough to get him to see the matter differently. That took Leo McGarry, his chief of staff and one of his oldest friends. Here’s what that looked like.

BARTLET I’m talking about two hundred and eight-six American marines in Beirut, I’m talking about Somalia, I’m talking about Nairobi.

LEO And you think ratcheting up the body count’s gonna act as a deterrent?

BARTLET You’re damn right.

LEO Then you are just as dumb as these guys who think that capital punishment is going to be a deterrent for drug kingpins. As if drug kingpins didn’t live their day to day lives under the possibility of execution. And their executions are a lot less dainty than ours and tend to take place without the bother and expense of due process. So my friend, if you want to start using American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that, we’re the only superpower left. You can conquer the world, like Charlemagne, but you better be prepared to kill everyone and you better start with me cause I will raise up an army against you and I will beat you!

BARTLET And this is good?

LEO Of course it’s not good, there is no good. It’s what there is. It’s how you behave if you’re the most powerful nation in the world. It’s proportional, it’s reasonable, it’s responsible, it’s merciful. It’s not nothing, four high rated military targets.

BARTLET Which they’ll rebuild again in six months.

LEO So we’ll blow ‘em up again in six months! We’re getting really good at it. [beat] It’s what our fathers taught us.

BARTLET Why didn’t you say so? [beat] Oh man Leo. When I think of all the work you put in to get me to run. [both sit] Wen I think of all the work you did to get me elected. I could pommel your ass with a baseball bat.

[They laugh.]

It’s the laugh that lets us know that Bartlet gets it. He “did the right thing” under Fitzwallace in the War Room. He heard the argument his Chief of Staff makes in his office. But finally…”It’s what our fathers taught us,” gets to him and it makes that shared laughter possible.

But we ought not to let that laughter make us feel that those three thousand Syrian civilians didn’t just have a very close call. They did. And it took a team of professionals who were willing to risk their positions to get that to happen. I don’t see that with Donald Trump and it worries me.

If he is elected, I am going to watch all seven seasons of The West Wing several times. And stop drinking caffein.

[1] “Back” requires, of course, that something was actually said or done that offended him. A person who had done nothing to offend him and who became the subject of Trump’s attacks would not think that he had been hit “back;” only that he had been hit.
[2] This is Aaron Sorkin’s second shot at this particular scenario. He wrote it somewhat differently in The American President. Still, the similarities are stark.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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