Most commencement speeches are little noted nor long remembered. They’re innocuous enough, usually boring but patriotic if, say, they’re delivered at a military-school graduation.
Speaking to Coast Guard Academy grads, their families and the school faculty, President Donald Trump chose to dish out a hefty helping of self-pity. The president tortured history, to boot.
“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately — especially by the media,” he complained, playing the victim to the hilt. “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
I’m an historian. I say with dead certainty that Trump is flat wrong.
The press mercilessly maligned our early presidents, starting with number two, portly John Adams, “His Rotundity.” (The press didn’t dare criticize number one, the godlike George Washington.)
Another Republican president’s detractors — many of them in the media — reviled him as an ass, blackguard, buffoon, butcher, Caesar impersonator, clown, despot, dictator, federal vandal, fool, royal ape, tactless boor, treason’s masterpiece, tyrant and usurper.
“He is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion,” mocked a newspaper in his home state. The rag was appalled at how anybody could have picked the guy “as the representative man of any party.”
The sheet derided his “weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts.” They were so “imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner,” that the country was “the laughing stock of the whole world.”
He was, in short, a small-town rube lawyer who in a big city “could pass for no more than a facetious pettifogger.”
The object of the Salem (Ill.) Advocate’s disaffection was Abraham Lincoln, who was then on the way to Washington, where he would be sworn in as president during America’s greatest crisis.
Though his home was in Springfield, the Illinois capital, Lincoln was born in a little log cabin near Hodgenville. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was a Lexington blue blood.
In March, 1861, her hometown paper, the rabidly anti-Lincoln and ultimately pro-Confederate Lexington Statesman, approvingly reprinted the New Orleans Delta’s take on her spouse.
Lincoln had just been inaugurated; Louisiana was out of the Union and in the Confederacy. Nonetheless, the Crescent City journal claimed to be stunned to see the United States, “that once proud Republic” to which the Bayou State had belonged, “so shamed and debased before the world by the ridiculous, vulgar and pusillanimous antics of the coarse and cowardly demagogue whom a corrupt and crazy faction [Yankee Republicans] has elevated to the chair once filled by Washington, Jefferson and Jackson.”
According to the Delta, Lincoln’s “silly speeches, his ill-timed jocularity, and his pusillanimous evasion of responsibility, and vulgar pettifoggery, have no parallel in history save for the crazy capers of Caligula, or in the effeminate buffoonery of Henry of Valois.” (Caligula was an infamous and homicidal Roman emperor, and Henry was a French king.)
Lincoln rightly went down in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. His Gettysburg Address is one of the most powerful and moving speeches in American history.
Nonetheless, the Chicago Times panned the Great Emancipator’s immortal words “as silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to foreigners as the President of the United States.” The paper predicted that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame” upon reading the address.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt,” Lincoln supposedly suggested.
Whether the first Republican president said that or not, it’s a lesson the current Republican president has yet to learn, and probably never will.
Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of “Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis,” to be published by the University Press of Kentucky.