Self-Pity Can Be Politically Fatal

By Mark Shields

May 20, 2017 4 min read

In polls of American historians conducted over the past 17 years by C-SPAN, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt have consistently ranked — along with George Washington — among the three best U.S. presidents. Yet President Lincoln was vilified in life, referred to in print as "the Illinois ape," "the Ourang-Outang at the White House," a baboon, a gorilla, a murderer and a traitor.

American historian-author William Manchester has recorded, in his classic "The Glory and the Dream," how FDR's political enemies, soaked in the bile of anti-Semitism, reviled him as "only a Jew anyway, descended from Dutch sheenies who changed their names, nothing but a New York kike" who "had caught gonorrhea from 'El-ea-nor.' (A Negro had infected her.)" Harsh and hateful treatment indeed for these two American heroes.

But both Roosevelt and Lincoln had the self-confidence to use their wit to rout their tormentors. Critics accused Lincoln of being both ugly and duplicitous, and Honest Abe simultaneously stuffed both insults by quipping, "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" When FDR was told that his activist wife, who was visiting a penitentiary, was "in prison," he was unperturbed, simply asking, "For what?"

But forget those larger-than-life leaders. We learned from the graduation speaker at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy that "no politician in history ... has been treated worse or more unfairly" than the graduation speaker himself, our 45th and current president, who is also, it would seem, an accomplished American historian. Move over, David McCullough.

As a former Marine and from personal reporting, I have enormous admiration for all that the professionals of the U.S. Coast Guard so courageously and expertly do every day to provide port security, to protect our environment, to save lives by air and sea, and to keep our nation safe. The Coast Guard Academy's 2017 commencement — a celebration of family, pride and personal patriotism — ought not to have been expropriated by the commander in chief of the United States into his personal pity party.

First, let's look at some of the facts. The 45th president lives in America's most cherished residence, with its 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. Serving him and his family around-the-clock is a devoted staff of 96 full-time and 250 part-time butlers, maids, ushers, chefs, florists, electricians and tour guides. He and his family are protected everywhere they go, driven in government vehicles and flown in the president's own jet.

Self-pity, as most of us learned painfully in adolescence, is self-absorbed unhappiness over our own problems that keeps us from accepting any responsibility for the situation that makes us so unhappy or angry. American author John Gardner defined self-pity as "the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality." Sound at all familiar?

History does provide some guidance. On June 6, 1944, when World War II had already raged for five years, the United States and its allies launched the century's most important invasion. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of that dangerous mission into Adolf Hitler-held France, knew that thousands of his troops would die but that there was no turning back. Failure was a real possibility, and Ike had personally written the announcement that he alone would then have to make. "Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. ...The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." Where does a country find such leaders?

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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