It was one of those small, but instructive, stories about fate and character in politics that you hear late at night on the campaign trail and never forget.
Flying across Florida in late 1995 in the midst of his first bid for the presidency, Lamar Alexander (or Lamar! as he was known then) reminisced about why as a young man he abruptly left the Richard Nixon White House after just 18 months to go back to Tennessee.
The future Tennessee senator explained that he had followed the advice of his mentor Bryce Harlow, Nixon’s head of congressional relations whose upright values were at odds with the cynical ethos of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Alexander recalled that Harlow’s instincts were sufficiently “sensitive to know that for a young person who might have a career in politics, that being in the Nixon White House after 1970 might not be the thing to do.”
(The exact quote, which I remember almost word-for-word, comes from an interview that Alexander gave to the Nixon Library in 2007.)
What gives this story contemporary relevance — although Alexander himself might not publicly admit it — are the reverberations from the Donald Trump White House. It is a reminder that working for a president who radiates contempt for democratic values can destroy a youthful political career before it really begins.
Like every White House, the Executive Office complex will be brimming with young men and women, filled with awe at their good fortune, eager to do the president’s bidding. As someone who long ago worked as a Jimmy Carter speechwriter, I recall that wide-eyed wonder.
Not every president is successful, as I know well from the Carter years. But since Nixon, every president has governed with reverence toward the office and democratic traditions.
From the moment that Press Secretary Sean Spicer nervously read a statement in the White House briefing room filled with risible lies about inaugural crowds, this administration has done everything in its power to forfeit the patriotic patina that surrounds the presidency.
Steve Bannon — the unshaven troubadour of white nationalism who sits astride the National Security Council — has claimed to admire Vladimir Lenin in his determination to smash the state. That’s why Bannon would probably appreciate that Trump’s arrival in the White House might be remembered as “Ten Days That Shook the World.” That, by the way, was the title that American radical John Reed gave to his credulous memoir of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
But what Bannon — and probably Trump himself — fail to understand is that there is more to governing than breaking crockery and picking out purported enemies of the state. That is why Trump’s executive order turning away refugees, as well as passport holders (and initially, even those who possessed a valid green card) from seven overwhelmingly Muslim countries was so self-destructive.
The hatefulness behind the de facto Muslim ban might have been expected by anyone who took Trump’s fulminations on the campaign trail seriously. But what was unexpected — especially for a president who trumpeted his executive abilities from business — was the stunning incompetence with which the executive order was applied.
But this is what happens in government when you only trust an inner core of White House aides. Shutting out the legal drafting team at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security (Gen. John Kelly, the new Cabinet secretary, was being briefed by phone as the order was being announced) was an invitation to chaos, human misery, hostile court decisions and massive demonstrations at airports.
At Monday’s press briefing, Spicer responded ominously to a question about more than 100 career diplomats at the State Department getting ready to file — through official channels — a petition objecting to Trump’s executive order on immigration. As Spicer put it, “I think they should either get with the program or they should go.”
All this brings us to the patriotic tradition of resignation in protest. There have always been moments in American public life when leading government officials cannot tolerate carrying out policies they find philosophically, morally or legally repugnant.
The most famous resignation in protest was Attorney General Elliot Richardson angrily walking out in 1973 after Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox at the height of Watergate.
Two 20th-century secretaries of State also resigned on points of principle. William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist, resigned in 1915 because he believed that Woodrow Wilson was violating American neutrality in World War I to aid the British. And after the failed Iranian hostage raid in 1980, the courtly Cyrus Vance felt obligated to leave Carter’s Cabinet because he had vehemently opposed military action.
The tragedy is not these assertions of honor. Rather it is those who stay on in high positions haplessly, convincing themselves they can do more good inside than outside.
Dovish Secretary of State Colin Powell during the run-up to the Iraq War represents a prime example. Samantha Power, until recently the ambassador to the United Nations, made her reputation writing passionately about American inaction in the face of 1990s war crimes in Bosnia. Yet Power remained on the Barack Obama foreign policy team even after it became evident that the U.S. would do nothing to halt the slaughter in Syria.
These are the precedents that seemingly honorable figures in the Trump firmament like Secretary of Defense James Mattis should always keep in mind. The formula for upholding democratic traditions is simple: If you see something, say something.
As for Lamar Alexander, he left the White House in more traditional fashion. He arranged a five-minute exit meeting with the president in the Oval Office and posed with Nixon for souvenir photographs.