In September 1993, Bill Clinton came to Congress to deliver an address on health care reform. But the wrong speech was in the teleprompter. This would have been an epic calamity for the current occupant of the executive mansion but President Clinton adroitly ad-libbed and remained on topic for some ten minutes while the problem was fixed.
I knew the operator who was running the prompter that night. I worked with him at the White House on several occasions during Clinton's first term—a good guy and a consummate professional. Nevertheless, he never lived down that momentary gaffe.
Still, I'm sure he would rather have that as the blot in his copybook than be the person with the responsibility of trying to harness mulish Donald Trump and make him read the copy that rolls before his eyes whenever the president makes a prepared speech.
For one, Trump's not very good at it—his delivery has all the flair of a company rep reading aloud Google's Terms of Service.
What's more, he suddenly tries to ad-lib or frequently mangles copy as he reads and tries to recover by coming up with a word or words that sound vaguely similar. He then plummets into a linguistic abyss of non-sequiturs that he sometimes blames on the machine malfunctioning.
That was the excuse after his Fourth of July extravaganza of self-love, during which he proclaimed, according to The Washington Post transcript, "Our army manned the [unclear], it [unclear] the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do." Trump's dog-ate-my-homework explanation: "I guess the rain knocked out the teleprompter, so it's not that, but I knew the speech very well, so I was able to do it without a teleprompter. But the teleprompter did go out. And it was actually hard to look at anyway because there was rain all over it." Uh-huh.
Those supposed 18th century airports set off a wave of social media hilarity, including a #RevolutionaryWarAirportStories metadata tag that inspired such brilliance as "Dearest Martha, please find enclosed a tracking number for my lost luggage at Philadelphia. It shall arrive to Mount Vernon via carriage in 21-25 days. Also enclosed is a receipt for the cost of parking my horse at Dulles for the weekend."
You know and I know there were no airports in 1776—the carriage lobby actively fought against them and made large campaign contributions to John Adams —but just in case, this week I paid a visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. I could not find a shred of evidence corroborating Trump's airport claims.
In truth, I was there because I'm a confessed history wonk and have wanted to visit the new museum since it opened two years ago. With exhibits spread across two floors and 16,000 square feet, they've done an excellent job explaining the causes and events of the revolution, from the traditional familiar stories to current scholarship. There are enough period rifles and muskets in the joint, along with their requisite accessories, that it could be called the National Museum of the Powder Horn, but turn a corner and there's a pair of baby shoes made from a British soldier's redcoat or a replica of the deck of an American privateer's sloop.
And throughout, reminders that this is a nation founded in protest, that it was created in a crucible of Enlightenment fervor and a knowledge of civilizations past, that it was built on a bedrock of ideals that then, as now, has not always been lived up to in real life.
The museum has done a fair job of inclusion; there are mentions of women's role in the fight and the hypocrisy of those founders who decried their own enslavement by the crown but themselves kept others bound in servitude. Slaves pledged their loyalty to the side they hoped would set them free and for many that meant the British.
The same goes for the Native American population; much is made of the divide within six nations of the Iroquois confederacy; the Oneida and Tuscarora people splitting with their brethren and siding with the revolutionaries, while the others aligned with the British. The Oneida contributed millions to the museum's construction, so I was curious that there was no mention of General John Sullivan, who on George Washington's orders in 1779, brought death and destruction to the native villages of those who opposed the independent colonies. History needs to be as discomfiting as it is illuminating.
As the fighting ended, physician and patriot Benjamin Rush wrote, "The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed." Wandering the museum, ever aware of our current "leadership" and its actions, his words were a reminder that not only is the revolution unending, it remains highly uncertain these days whether our noble experiment won't collapse in tragedy and downfall.
A short walk away in Philadelphia, near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, there's a sort of companion to the Museum of the American Revolution —the National Constitution Center. Opened in 2003, this, too, is a stirring tribute to the founders, in this case honoring the endurance of the United States Constitution. It's filled with documents and artifacts illustrating the constitutional crises that have wracked the republic since its beginning, some redounding to our credit, others to our dishonor and shame.
Currently, there's an exhibit called "Civil War and Reconstruction." Its displays, including a copy of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a pike bought by abolitionist John Brown for the raid on Harpers Ferry and a Klansman's hood, also are reminders that at least when it comes to where we are today, we've sort of been here before. We know how extreme, how low we can go in our abuse of others and until recently had hoped it would never happen again.
So much for hope. For anyone who cares about the country, its past, present and future, the way that Donald Trump bulldozes our constitution, except when it suits his purposes, his refusal to accept the balance of powers—interpreting Article II to mean he can do whatever he wants —is a despicable abuse of democracy and basic human decency.
The week has seen planned ICE raids, more evidence of horrific inhumane conditions in immigrant detention centers and the playing out of Trump's unconstitutional ploy to jam a citizenship question into the 2020 census, an attempt that didn't succeed but not for lack of trying—and accompanied, of course, by a Trumpian refusal to admit failure.
He launches a racist tweet attack on members of Congress who come from immigrant families and tells them to go back where they came from. The hosts of Fox & Friends make jokes about them. These immigrants, the people Abraham Lincoln described as "the electric cord" of the Declaration of Independence, who no matter their nation of origin, link "the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."
And Trump continues to block all attempts to get the bottom of his skullduggery while favoring the wealthy, including himself and his family, at the expense of country.
"There never was a democracy yet that did not end in suicide," John Adams warned. Watching this president and his enablers mangle the Constitution far worse than he mangles the English language is an exhausting and soul-wrenching experience.
Walking through the Museum of the American Revolution and the National Constitution Center should be a celebration of liberty, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was more like a eulogy. November 2020 can't come soon enough.