The view from a small-town bar stool

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The restaurant’s open sign was dark, but the thick, beveled windows revealed that a back table had four men sipping coffee. Behind them on the wall was a big-screen TV showing Saturday cartoons. I tried the brass door handle. Locked.

A temporary sign to one side listed seasonal business hours. I was 20 minutes early.

So, I left, but as I passed the adjoining hotel’s entrance, a white-haired man in bulging half-zip sweater stepped out. His sleeves were pushed up. A stained white towel hung over one shoulder.

“Care to come in for some coffee, sir?” he asked.

I stopped. “Oh, that’s fine, but I’m looking for a place to eat, too, and I see you’re not open yet.”

“That’s OK, sir. I’d be happy to serve you coffee until we do. You come in for some coffee?”

I nodded and said thanks as the man backed aside and motioned me in. The door was heavy and dark like the one for the restaurant, and it opened into a small lobby. Past the empty front desk, which had a slotted wall behind it and a numbered room key dangling from each slot, was a passage to the restaurant.

“Please sit anywhere, and I will bring coffee over to you right away,” the man said as he followed me through.

The restaurant’s décor was as dark and heavy as the door, assuring a gloomy ambiance even on the sunniest days. All the tables and the thinly padded chairs were against the far wall or close to the picture windows facing the street. A long, carved wood bar curved from beside the passageway toward the back near the big-screen TV, which had its volume set at just above a hum.

I slid onto one of the square-backed bar stools. They were aligned at 45 degrees toward the picture windows, through which one saw the gas station across the street starting to receive a flurry of business. The man set a ceramic diner mug in front of me and a one-page menu. He introduced himself as Mo, owner of both the restaurant and hotel. His accented English put his heritage closer to Europe than to the southern Illinois riverbank town where the restaurant sat.

“We’re not open for lunch until 11,” he said as he poured. “But here, you can see what we have, and I will make sure they get it going for you when we do.”

I said thanks. Mo pushed over a carousel of coffee creamer, sugar, and stir sticks, then went over to the back table and sat with the other people who I saw through the window. Though the room was warm, the three around Mo had on light winter jackets that bulged tight around their ample mid-sections the way Mo’s sweater did.

On my second sip of coffee, one of the men chuffed quietly.

“Sir? You called him Sir? When did you start doing that?”

“Shh,” Mo murmured.

“Looks to me like he should be the one calling you Sir.”

Two other voices chuckled. Mo ignored this.

“So, you sold your car?”

“Yep,” said the first voice. “$500.”

“Then let’s go out and get drunk,” the second voice said. More chuckling around the table.

“A 2007,” the first voice continued. “Needed $3,000 for the transmission. Not worth putting that much into it. Found someone in Jerseyville to look at it. Couldn’t get anyone in St. Louis to look at it for me.”

“Not much use going up there for anything,” said a third voice.

“How old’s your car?” Mo asked.

“Mine? Less than a year,” Voice No. 3 responded. “Didn’t want to deal with all that hassle.”

“Well, I would have fixed it up,” said a fourth voice.

“You? Whadda mean?” Mo replied. “You’ve got that big truck of yours. It’s not a month old.”

“That’s what matters,” Voice No. 3 said. “One of those big trucks. Or an SUV, the ones that sit up high off the ground so you can load stuff into it. If you’re going to buy something, buy something like that.”

“Yeah, don’t get one of those small trucks,” Voice No. 4 said. “They aren’t worth it.”

An outer door near the TV opened, and a young woman in a green Southern Illinois University pullover entered. Morning sunshine poured through just long enough to highlight the thick lacquer over the bar and the age of the men around the back table.

“Hello,” she said to Mo. The door thumped closed like a bank vault.

“Hello. I’ve already given the gentleman a menu. What’re you doing here so early?”

Voice No. 3 interrupted. “Change the channel while you’re at it. Something like the news. We should listen to what that new president is saying. Makes more sense than watching cartoons …”

“… More entertaining, anyway,” said Voice No. 4.

Chuckling went around the table again. Then all four took sips of coffee before the man with Voice No. 4 cleared his throat and rose.

“Yeah, well we’ll see how entertaining,” he said. “I want to see him actually do something.”

“About Obamacare?” said Voice No. 3.

“About that, immigration, anything,” he replied. Unlike Mo’s accent, his and the others’ fit the region. I wondered what they thought of Mo the first time they met him?

The others also rose and replaced the chairs under the table. One by one, they carried their mugs to the end of the bar and turned to leave in single file.

“See you later,” Voice No. 2 called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mo.”

“You’re welcome, boys.”

Mo put the mugs on a tray disappeared through a door behind the bar. The woman was already busy wiping up the rest of the bar as the table emptied. On the TV, the channel remained unchanged. A “South Park” rerun was starting.

“So, I think Mo let me in because he saw me at the door,” I said to the woman. “But did I interrupt something?”

“Nah. Just their usual weekend gathering,” she answered as she brought over the coffee pot to refill my mug. She introduced herself as Jessica, a senior at the university represented on her shirt who after three years was working her last weekend for Mo before starting an internship. “Every Saturday, they’re here. You must have come up close to when they were breaking up anyway.”

“You open at 11. How early do they come in?”

“Oh, it can be early. Sunup sometimes.” She held up the half-filled pot. “This might be their third or fourth.”

As she replenished my mug, Mo reemerged and headed toward the lobby. It was still too soon to unlock the restaurant’s main entrance.

“Jess, I’m going home now for a little bit. Call me if you need anything.”

“OK.”

The lobby door thumped closed right as another woman emerged from the door behind the bar. Her gray-blonde was hair tied up above her neck, and her chef’s coat was clean but fraying around the collar and sleeve cuffs.

“So, where’s he going?”

“He’ll be back,” Jessica said as she replaced the coffee pot on its warmer.

“Well, text him to come back with ice. The ice maker’s out again.”

“Hmm.”

“And are we changing the channel?”

“They’re gone. Whatever.” Jessica turned back to me. “Do you have a preference?”

I said no.

She reached beside the coffee maker to pick up the TV remote, a black bar of plastic almost as long as her forearm. Jessica held it over her head with both hands. The channel change ended on Fox News and aerial video of women’s marches taking place that morning around the country. She set the remote back down and returned to work. The sound remained on the edge of audible.

The woman in the chef’s coat clicked her tongue at the images on the 60-inch screen.

“Yuh huh. I heard some sort of marches were happening everywhere today. Think there’s one in St. Louis, too, right?  I don’t have time for any of that.”

“Me either,” Jessica said without looking back up. She wrung her hands. “I just don’t understand what all the fuss … I mean, I’ve got too much else going on in my life right now to worry about anything like that.”

Jessica’s college major is criminal justice. In a week, she begins interning with the county probation office pushing paperwork she hopes will push people out of the legal system and into assistance. She knows that about 90 percent of the cases involve drugs – heroin and methamphetamine foremost among them.

She knows about 90 percent of the people, too. She grew up here; she understands their pain and the frustration causing it. Those people, not the marchers, are her inspiration, which is why her fingers are crossed that the internship turns into full-time work.

She is not optimistic, however – about the job or the people.

“If they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Jessica explained after the woman in the chef’s coat left the room. “State doesn’t have any money – they get out and go right back to what they were doing: nothing. No jobs. I’m not saying jobs will keep them off drugs. But if there’s something out there they can look forward to, they might not go back to drugs once you get them off.”

Jessica glanced back at the TV screen, then at the floor.

“I mean, I know these marches matter. But Trump says he’s going to get us jobs. Right now, to me, that matters more.”

Trump’s tweets hurt his support in the Heartland

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Image courtesy of Vocativ.

My aunt’s glittering Christmas tree remained up and surrounded by presents well past New Year’s. Outdoors, Trump-Pence campaign signs posted around her rolling rural Missouri community did, too – for much the same reason.

“It’s too cold to do anything,” one of my cousins said. “Door froze shut on the car yesterday.”

Across America’s Heartland, one southward bending jet steam after another pulled down bitter cold from Canada since the week after Thanksgiving. Feels-like temperatures had minus signs in front of them, turning county and backroads into strips of ice and freezing my family’s travel plans to my aunt’s house.

Before that, stretching to Election Day, dripping skies turned the rich, dark soil to mud around this mid-Missouri farming landscape, literally and figuratively freezing it in place since Nov. 8.

But when the thaw comes, I wonder if the Trump signs are pulled down before the Christmas decorations.

The hint that they might came during a TV news break between playoff football games. My aunt, whose prayers for clear roads and a big family Christmas were answered, was picking up bits of wrapping paper left after a 90-minute cacophony of gift-giving and food consumption in her broad living room. Recovery victims slouched in every chair and nook between them. About half the sets of eyes aimed at the TV were half open.

Then the news announcer reminded viewers of Donald Trump’s pointed and petty Twitter exchange with Arnold Schwarzenegger two days earlier. A low grunt oozed out on either side of me from a couple of people I knew to be Trump supporters.

“God, I wish he would just shut the hell up,” one of them muttered at the screen.

My ears tingled. The rest of the audience remained quiet. The news announcer was in mid-sentence when some smaller members of our brood returned from playing upstairs. So, later, as the mutterer and I were in the corner of the kitchen nudging second helpings of pecan pie onto fresh paper plates, I leaned in to whisper an inquiry.

“So, eh, not happy with Trump?” I ventured delicately.

This violated protocol on this side of my family, which keeps its ties to one another closer than to politics. In a house brimming with contrasting and conflicting viewpoints on virtually every topic, conversations hew eagerly to health and happiness, weekday labor and weekend relaxation, the severe weather and the cheerful coos from the newest great-grandchild experiencing her first Christmas. Political discussions remain stored with the lawn chairs awaiting the warm-weather days when they can drift harmlessly on sultry breezes.

The mutterer, another of my cousins, applied two dollops of whipped cream to his slice of pie and also whispered.

“Yeah, well, yeah. It’s just … you know …”

He paused.

“I mean, he keeps saying all this stuff that doesn’t really matter and makes him look silly.”

“Hmm.”

“Stuff that makes it look like he’s not paying attention or doesn’t want to.”

“You mean, on Twitter? That Schwarzenegger thing?”

“Yeah. That stuff doesn’t matter to anybody.”

It is safe to say my relatives around here know what does. They work on farms and at schools, in construction and manufacturing. They have watched generations of prosperity devolve into desperation. They see jobs continue to disappear and livelihoods diminish, and they know the reasons are multiple, varied, and complex. When my aunt hosts Christmas, they know it is not just a celebration of togetherness, but also her valiant effort to ward off the same creeping desperation, if only for a few hours.

When my family went to cast their ballots Nov. 8, they did it for the sake of change – the sake of their community – not for a celebrity.

“So many people I know are out there looking for work. Still looking,” my cousin said. “(Trump) says he’s bringing back jobs. Man, I am hoping.”

“But it won’t happen right away,” I said. “It’ll take time. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” said my cousin, extending the syllable and staring down at the whipped cream. “Yeah, it will. And I’d like to hear him say what he’s got in mind to do it. But … this.” He glanced back at the television, which was showing the kickoff for the second game. “This is what he talks about.”

“You think maybe the news should ignore it?”

My cousin sighed. “Nah, nah, that’s not it. They’re going to say things. Everyone will believe what they believe. I think it’s him being on Twitter all the time complaining about things that don’t matter to anyone.”

He moved to leave. I touched his elbow to stop him. “So, you still going to give him a chance?”

He shrugged. “Got no choice. He’s ours now.”

“But if you thought he might keep tweeting like this, would you have supported him?”

Another shrug. “Man, I don’t know. Maybe. I really didn’t like that Hillary Clinton – didn’t like her one bit. But all this tweeting … man … makes me wonder why I voted for anyone at all …”

An arm attached to one of the grandchildren, then the rest of the grandchild, squeezed between us for the pie. My cousin and I ended the discussion and worked through the growing kitchen crowd back to our places in the living room. We settled back into the joy of the occasion. (Trump used Twitter again two days later to slam another star, Meryl Streep, who criticized him at the Golden Globe Awards.)

Later, as everyone said their farewells and packed to leave, I commiserated.

“My best to your friends,” I told my cousin. “I really do hope for their sake that Trump delivers.”

“Thanks, man,” he said and patted my shoulder. “But I think this is all we’re going to get from him.”

We’ve had presidents like Trump – twice

 

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Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.

At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.

Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.

One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.

We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.

Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.

As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.

Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.

“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.

This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.

In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.

We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”

What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.

History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.