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writing for godot

All the President's Diaper-Changers

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Written by Carl Peterson   
Wednesday, 01 March 2017 17:17

All the President's Diaper-Changers

The Optimists

Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence:  With the advent of this new kind of Republican presidential nominee--one without ties to the political establishment (other than quid pro quo money disbursements) --they saw opportunity for themselves, opportunity that probably never would have presented itself to them otherwise.

Had the President been an establishment candidate, bringing with him his establishment baggage, would there have ever been space left for any of these three?  Possibly, but as they themselves understood, probably not.  It was opportunity and they seized it.  Can't blame them for that; in the game of politics you must seize your opportunity, because it is unlikely to offer itself again.  So, these four did what many, many other people (not everyone) would have done in their places:  They staked their careers on a man they did not really know.

Did Conway foresee that the campaign and the days since the election would take such a toll on her?  Did she realize that as much as she thought she wanted this opportunity, the President needed her or someone like her, even more?  Did she foresee that as much as the break seemed to offer, it would eventually take from her much, much more than it would give?

Last year the President needed to import some competence into his campaign.  He needed someone with establishment ties and establishment knowledge to be his campaign manager and spokesperson--Conway fit the requirement.  Also, while many people found her candidate to be scary, Conway herself was sweet, friendly and without sharp edges.  In the beginning, Conway revealed a special skill in the reinterpretation of her boss's words, sometimes employing nearly nonsensical sophistries delivered with what appeared to be a guileless open smile.  Nothing about her public presentation suggested that Conway was a hater, which in turn suggested that maybe her candidate was not really a hater, though he sometimes said things that seemed to be hateful.  Conway was probably hired to be a counteractant to her candidate's threateningly authoritarian aesthetic, rather than an adjuvant to it, which is what the man she replaced, Corey Lewandowski, was.  Let us admit it; Conway did, for a surprisingly long time, successfully deliver what her boss wanted from her.

But now Conway's once lovely blond hair is "dead," (as Kate McKinnon playing Conway on SNL put it) the sparkle has departed her pale blue eyes and--never more than petite--she seems to have lost weight she couldn't afford to lose.  Where at first Conway was able to mentally outpace the words that tumbled from her mouth as she explained her boss to the rest of the world, her words began to catch up with her.  The words, although they did not come faster than they used to, finally outran her mind, and Conway began to inadvertently speak the truth; not only that, it was a deeper truth, and this was definitely not the business her boss was in.

Conway was widely derided for using the term "alternative facts," to explain press secretary Sean Spicer's defense of false claims about the size of the 2017 presidential inaugural crowd.  As she had consistently shown in her reinterpretations and defenses of her boss's statements, Conway knew words, knew their subtle meanings, knew how to use them to conjure a new reality--yes, an alternate reality--offered for your consideration in place of the reality where her boss did not look so good.  Conway had to have been familiar with alternate reality; after all, the phrase has been around for years, labeling the concept behind certain literature, movies, video games and drug experiences.  She knew that "alternative facts," was a phrase the president's detractors could have used to critically describe many of the things the president asserted as facts.  Yet, Conway herself, probably psychically exhausted from her months of daily creating and publicly suggesting alternative truth to be accepted in place of what her boss's critics insisted was the truth, used "alternative facts" to describe the president's own press secretary's facts.  On at least some level, Conway had given up.  Absent exhaustion, she never would have hoped that the phrase "alternative facts" could be successfully and un-ironically employed as a euphemism for lies.  Conway's interlocutor on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, pounced on her claim that Sean Spicer was simply using alternative facts, and quickly insisted that these were "falsehoods," not alternative facts.  Of course, it did not take a genius to see that Spicer's claims were simply not true, and that they were indeed falsehoods, but a better instinct for Todd at that moment would have been to recognize that Conway was finally surrendering.  Of course she had known for awhile about her boss's alternative facts.  She had spent months re-spinning them into something that she hoped could pass for the truth.  But in the beginning what was more important to her was that she had hit the big time, and that as a professional this was what she was supposed to be doing: putting her boss in the best possible light.  But she did not know, she did not foresee that her candidate, and then her president, was not like anyone she had ever seen in politics.  She did not know that the bulk of her job description, even though it was definitely not written down, entailed changing her boss's diaper almost every day.  Then, a few weeks ago, as if dizzied by the pace of her clean-up duties, Conway again sent out a lightly coded message of desperate truth, urging Americans to "buy Ivanka's stuff," but really meaning, "Help, I'm trapped in the White House and can't get out!"

And why in the first place was Sean Spicer attempting to gainsay reality at his press conferences?  All presidential press secretaries are required to speak on behalf of the Administration, and to assure the public that the president's actions and policies are not amenable to justifiable criticism.  But Spicer's job description, like Kellyanne Conway's, apparently contained the unwritten mandate to change the boss's diaper whenever necessary.  That is, when the president soiled himself politically, which he did, almost daily, Spicer was among those who were required to clean up afterwards.  Typically, press secretaries have been called upon occasionally to attempt to undo minor damage the president does to himself when he "misspeaks."  With this boss, however, the press secretary had to attempt a full diaper-change at every press conference.  Further, Spicer's position was even more uncomfortable than Conway's:  Conway was given the liberty to spin as she would, but Spicer seemed to have been told exactly what to say, which meant that he had to repeat the president's misrepresentations nearly verbatim, in front of the whole world, without any personal belief in them, and without any new supporting evidence or reasonable justification.  He was being thrown to the wolves.  To protect himself personally, Spicer became angry.  Nevertheless, on SNL one Saturday night, a wolf finally ate him.

Reince Priebus was probably more aware than Conway and Spicer of the potential pitfalls involved in accepting a job with this president.  But, as experienced as he was, Priebus underestimated how bad things would get, and how quickly they would get there.  Recent photographs of Priebus shows that he is not a happy man; in some of the photographs taken of him in proximity to the president, Priebus looks like he is being strangled from behind by the Invisible Man.  Recently he was on Meet the Press, denying all the rumors about discord behind the scenes in the White House, and finally, after rather skillfully, though unpersuasively answering Chuck Todd's probing, Priebus reminded Todd that he had been a litigator for 15 years, and that he always "dotted his I's and crossed his T's."  This was apropos of nothing except as an admonishment that whatever was really going on in the White House, Todd was not going to get it out of him, and Priebus was not going to allow himself to be caught up in the intrigue.  This was not as obvious an indication of exhaustion as Conway's reference to "alternative facts," or her televised hawking of Ivanka's merchandise, but it was getting there.

The president probably hired Mike Pence as vice-president with foreknowledge of his own future need for some kind of association with probity.  Unsurprisingly, the president would also soon assign Mike Pence to his diaper-changing team.  At first, Pence was required at media interviews to simply deny what was obviously the truth, and to do it with a sobriety appropriate to church, and a gentle head-shaking sadness that seemed genuine, perhaps because he was genuinely sad for himself.  Pence has recently performed his highest-profile diaper-work in Europe, but that is a story for below.

The Internationalists (Diaper-Changers Without Borders)

Senator John McCain, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly:  With the exception of Haley and Pence, all have accomplished enough in their careers that they do not need to reach any more for the brass ring of pure ego-gratification.  Haley has contradicted the president on the two-state solution and Russia, although it is not clear whether she did this without the president's pre-approval.  With the exception of Pence, then, each presumably has room in his psyche to risk contradicting the president's statements when necessary.  And each, with the probable exception of Haley and Pence knew what they were getting into when they agreed to a relationship with the president.  John McCain, who has never agreed to work for the president, nevertheless has decided, as established by his words and actions, to criticize the president on carefully selected occasions.  In this way, the Senator has agreed to a specific relationship with the president.

On the campaign trail in April 2016, the then candidate who is now president said that NATO was obsolete, and indicated that it would be okay with him if it broke up.  Since that time the president has repeatedly reaffirmed his criticism of NATO, saying in July 2016 that he would not honor the US commitment to defend NATO signatories if they had not "fulfilled their obligations to [the United States]."  Establishments in both Europe and the United States were alarmed, and even leaders of the Republican party firmly expressed their disagreement with the then candidate/now president's break with nearly 70 years of continuous American support of NATO.  Although the candidate possibly did not know it at the time, he had soiled his diaper.  In their confirmation hearings on January 11th and 12th , both Tillerson and Mattis indicated strong support for NATO.  Since that time Mattis has traveled twice to Europe and both times reassured Europeans that the United States would continue to support NATO, while asking that they pay their fair share in defense expenditures.  It is not clear that the Europeans were reassured; nevertheless the president's diaper had been changed.  As if to reaffirm this diaper-change, on February 20th Pence appeared at NATO headquarters in Brussels and said, "The world needs NATO's strength and leadership now more than ever before."  Like Mattis, Pence also mentioned that NATO member countries needed to pay their fair share.

A couple of days ago, in his speech to Congress, the president had apparently changed his mind:  "We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism."

On September 7, 2016, the soon-to-be president-elect publicly stated that the United States should have kept Iraq's oil.  He said it wouldn't be stealing, it would be the United States reimbursing itself.  Others said that taking the oil would constitute a war-crime.  On January 21, 2017, the day after his inauguration, the president again said the United States should have kept Iraq's oil.  On February 20th, in Iraq, Mattis told reporters that the US was "not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil," and indicated that it was customary for Americans to pay for their own oil.  It is not clear whether Iraqis believed Mattis; nevertheless Mattis had changed the president's diaper.

By late January of this year, within a few days after his inauguration, the president had repeatedly offended and alienated Mexico sufficiently that Mexico's president canceled a scheduled visit to the United States to meet with the president.  On February 23rd, Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly were in Mexico to begin repairing the damage done by the president to relations between Mexico and the United States.  On the same day, in a meeting with American chief executives the president said that the days of Mexico treating the United States unfairly were over.  The president indicated that, in "a military operation" the United States was deporting Mexican gang members for the first time.  At a news conference in Mexico that day, in an apparent attempt to reassure the Mexicans, Kelly said that there would be no military involvement in deportations, there had been no fundamental change in deportation rules, and there would be no mass deportations.  Relations between Mexico and the United States were so bad by the time Tillerson and Kelly visited Mexico that an immediate attempt at a presidential diaper-change would probably have been seen by the Mexicans as disrespectful.  A diaper-change of this magnitude will require more preparatory ground work.

In early February of this year, the president reportedly offended Australia's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a telephone call foreshortened by the president after he had informed the prime minister that of his five calls to world leaders that day, this call had "been the worst by far."  According to the Washington Post, the president had "blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win."  Several days later US Senator John McCain changed the president's diaper when he called the Australian ambassador to the United States to express support for the US-Australia relationship, and appreciation for Australia's long-time reliability as an ally.

The president's publicly expressed affinity for Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin is well-known and dates back at least to 2015.  This year, Senator McCain, Ambassador Haley, James Mattis, and John Kelly have all changed the president's diaper on this subject, but to date the president still needs another change.

On February 15th of this year, the president held a joint press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  At the conference the president said,  "Looking at two-state or one-state, I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one both parties like. I can live with either one."  Although it sounded more like input on a three party selection of carpet color, the president's apparent withdrawal of US support from the two-state solution represented a break with decades-long American diplomatic efforts toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma.  The next day, UN Ambassador Haley changed the president's diaper when she told reporters, "First of all, the two-state solution is what we support. Anybody that wants to say the United States does not support the two-state solution--that would be an error."

 

Two Distinct Ways of the Changing the President's Diaper

You may have noticed that there is a bipartite structure to the current mechanism for presidential diaper-changing:  One part for domestic diaper-changing, and one part for international diaper-changing. Domestic diaper-changing so far has been triggered most of the time by bold presidential statements unsupported by probative evidence, and contradicted by probative evidence.  So far, most domestic diapering has been handled by Conway, Spicer, and Pence, although Priebus also performs these chores occasionally.  We have already briefly discussed the different methods used by the diaperers.  But the commonality is that for domestic diaper-changing no one ever admits that the president "misspoke," or got his facts wrong, or that the president's statements are ever in any way less than incredibly accurate and truthful.  So, if some people think they smell something in the president's diaper, Conway non-confrontationally explains it in a way that shows that although you might think you smell something, you are incorrect.  Spicer angrily denies that there is any such smell, and there must be something wrong with you for suggesting that there is. Pence shakes his head sadly, and gently denies any odor, but never offers further explanation.  Priebus answers the odor allegations point-by-point, seeming at each step to offer reasonable rebuttal, but when he is done, the room still smells funny.

International presidential diapering is according to a different concept:  This does not involve countering allegations that the president has soiled his diaper, i.e., said or done something that needs to be fixed; rather it requires the diaper-changer, publicly at least, to act as if nothing is wrong in the president's diaper; in fact, for all you can tell from observing the international diaperer, the president does not even wear a diaper, let alone need to have it changed..  The international diaper-changer only wants to make something clear, e.g., the US does not want Iraqi oil; the US fully supports NATO; the US should not and will not cozy up to Russia until Russia straightens up; the US values good relations with Mexico; the US appreciates that Australia has for a long time been one of the US's most reliable allies, etc.  This list is not comprehensive, and, no doubt, it will grow.

Is There a Strategy Here?

The press so far has not closely questioned the international diaper-changers to find out why the president so often says one thing, and soon thereafter one of his appointees, or a senator, or an ambassador contradicts him.  And there is no evidence that anyone has been punished for correcting the president, so it appears that the president does not object much to being contradicted by his underlings in international affairs.  So far, with the notable exception of the Russia question, the president seems to be going along with the "corrections," submitted by his cabinet, his vice-president, and McCain and Haley.

At least one columnist has floated the idea that the president deliberately sows international confusion to make foreign countries think he may be a little mad, therefore dangerous, and not to be trifled with.  However, because it promotes uncertainty and instability such a strategy is itself a little mad, and suggests that if the president is pursuing it, he is not pretending.  Admittedly, contradictory messages from the United States about NATO may squeeze some money from the NATO signatories who are behind in their defense obligations, but this and other potential payoffs do not seem to be great enough to offset the probable steep downside of the strategy.

So, no, the president is probably not deliberately employing the Madman Theory made famous by President Nixon.  Rather, the president's indefatigable predilection for making strong statements that are readily and quickly demonstrated to be false, either because they are mendacious or supported by insufficient knowledge, or both, shows that the president has a contentious relationship with any presumed shared reality.  The president does not want to be ruled by publicly perceived reality, but to rule it, or at least confuse it enough that he can control it more than anyone else can.  This seems to be in the president's nature, or at least established in his character by a life-long habit of misrepresenting the truth as a way to cope.  If this is true, then don't expect this president to change or to "pivot" or do anything essentially different from what he has been doing.  He's 70.  This is it folks.

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