Photograph from NBC News
I know you are not given much to reading, but perhaps you have heard of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Or at least seen the 1984 movie. If the latter, you missed out on the lessons of book four, where a man has merged with a giant worm to deliberately become the worst ruler the universe has ever experienced, for the express purpose of teaching humanity never to fall so low again.
He is, as you might imagine, somewhat unpopular.
I don’t speak to anything other than your sense of self-preservation when I say that it is not, despite what many would have us believe to be all common sense, too late. I know this because last week a woman whose opponent denied her womanhood, her personhood; who declined even to debate with her, won the election in Virginia’s 13th district. When asked if she had any words for defeated incumbent Bob Marshall, who campaigned as “Virginia’s chief homophobe,” she responded, “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”
Mr. President, Bob Marshall did not deserve Danica Roem’s forgiveness. He did not deserve the time of day from her. But whether or not she spoke with him, or will ever speak with him, she made room for him. Not even as a changed, repentant man, but as the hate-spewing rival he’d run against her as, all these months. She did this because it is her job. And because she was elected to do that job. And somehow, despite all the indignities he heaped upon her, she found herself capable of serving him. Because she was elected to serve.
Bob Marshall spent 25 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, yet this is how he will be remembered: as a cantankerous old fool who lost to someone possessing more compassion in her little finger than he managed to summon during the entirety of his campaign. As someone who puts his name upon large buildings around the world, you are one, I expect, to whom legacies matter. Do you want to go the way of the Bob Marshalls of the world? Can you even recall all the old men you’ve laughed at over the years, dismissed for their hidebound worldviews and subsequently forgotten? Do you want your name to end up like theirs—the punchline on the tip of a smirking young man’s tongue?
If Danica Roem can treat Bob Marshall as the fellow human deserving of decency and grace that he continually proved himself incapable of being, you might yet manage to exit the Oval Office with whatever remains of your fernlike pride intact. Whatever dark hole you are trying to fill with the slurs hurled at world leaders, at your own voters; whatever tenderness you yet seek to protect through ever more bombastic threats and untruths, both here and abroad: you can still stop digging your trenches. We are neither your spades nor your bunkers, and we cannot save you, nor can harming us save you, from whatever dark heart you seek to avoid.
We can, though, save your legacy, with time. Look at George Bush. When I was a child, he was the worst of the worst, held up as a bumbling buffoon who led us into two unwinnable wars. He, too, was talked of as perhaps being mentally subpar, given all his very public miscommunications. And yet, with you in office, people who should know better — who were alive and culturally conscious enough to know better during Bush’s administration — praise him, in comparison to you.
Whether or not they are right to do so matters not a whit to you, I expect. They found room, through whatever philosophical and moral acrobatics, to regard Bush as endearing, of all things. Touching, as he struggled to don a poncho during your inauguration. Adorable, as he stumbled awkwardly through summits with foreign leaders in ill-fitting traditional garb and while making a mess of the formal greetings. Lovable. Even though he might not have deserved it. Like the inhabitants of Dune chafing under the God Emperor’s 3,500 year reign, they looked back on a terrible time, found it less bad than their present circumstances, and hailed it as a golden age.
You may have been the president to most successfully harness the malleability of public truth for his own ends so far, but you are hardly going to be the only one to do this. People can and will rewrite you, as they are rewriting George Bush. Do you want to be rewritten as someone somebody, somewhere, loved? For whom allowances were made? Whose gross mishandlings of national and international policy matters get respun as cute mishaps and harmless shenanigans?
Me, sir? I don’t think you deserve it. I don’t think Bob Marshall deserved it, either. And I don’t think people who love as selfishly as I (we?) do, always wanting one more pat on the back, one more reminder that we’ve done okay — I don’t think we deserve to be told that.
But I don’t make these calls. Other people do. And if those people are as generous as Danica Roem, they may be kinder to you in history texts than you could possibly have reason to expect. Speaking, then, as one selfish person to another, I implore you: heighten the chances of you receiving that kind of historiographical redemption. Stop ripping off the bloodied bandages of the past to wrap around whatever bruised and battered remnant of your soft core remains. To whatever part of you that seeks some sort of lastingness in seeing your name glittering in glass from Las Vegas to Abu Dhabi, I say: if you want your legacy to be more than the death cry of a dying country, stop killing your people, through ignorance or malicious malfeasance or both. Allow the rewriters of history some unbloodied space in which to work their horrifying magic.
Again, I don’t think you deserve it. But we’ll both be dead long before the historians hit save and close. And you’re the one with the legacy to protect. If you stop ruining everything, they might even say we loved you.
And people might even believe it.
“All of history is a malleable instrument in my hands. Ohhh, I have accumulated all of these pasts and I possess every fact—yet the facts are mine to use as I will and, even using them truthfully, I change them.” ― Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune