At 12:05 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1974, America’s 38th president stood in front of the eminences of Official Washington in the brightly lit White House East Room and reassured a shaken country that had just witnessed something that had never happened before, and hasn’t happened since.
“My fellow Americans,” said Gerald R. Ford, who had been our president for just five minutes and four seconds as his just-resigned predecessor was flying into his exile in California, “our long national nightmare is over.”
Fast forward 46 years.
This week, the Great News Funnel seemed to gush as never before, flooding our news screens with bad-dream breaking news. It came at us from everywhere at once:
NEWSBREAK: America’s COVID-19 deaths were still soaring — more than 170,000 Americans now killed by the pandemic President Donald Trump initially dismissed as no problem, then failed to combat and minimize as effectively as all other industrialized nations did. …
NEWSBREAK: A Republican-led Senate probe found new proof that Russia’s effort to help Trump win the 2016 election was no hoax —it was real. Also: Trump officials actively sought Russia’s help. Also: Russia is at it again in 2020. And this time Vladimir Putin has a well-positioned ally as he seeks to shatter Americans’ faith in their democracy’s institutions; yup, Trump. …
NEWSBREAK: Trump, flailing as polls show him losing, has mounted a crusade of deceit to con Americans into believing, without showing any proof, that if they vote by mail in this pandemic, they’ll be inviting Democratic fraud. Never mind that five states, including Republican Utah, have long voted mainly by mail with no problems. And there’s more …
NEWSBREAK: Trump’s postmaster general has dismantled many mail sorting machines, removed mailboxes from streets and implemented cost-cutting reforms that slowed mail service. Yet Trump refuses to say he’ll accept and not challenge the results of the November election. And Americans have no idea what to expect.
At 10:26 p.m. on Wednesday, America’s 44th president stood alone in a Philadelphia museum, in front of an exhibit about the writing of the United States Constitution.
Barack Obama, now in his fourth year as an ex-president, understood that Americans who never heard Jerry Ford’s assuring words now have frightening reasons to feel they are trapped in a long, looping national nightmare.
America’s shattering realities of 2020 makes the twinges we thought were nightmarish during Richard Nixon’s lying cover-up of his Watergate crimes seem small-time indeed.
And yet, Obama felt it was his duty to warn us of the threat we are facing from within —within the famously oval office where he once worked. So Obama broke with tradition and spoke to us in a way that no ex-president ever has in modern history. He called out his successor by name —and he warned that Trump’s misconduct now threatens our Constitution’s greatest gift to us all: Our democracy.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job —because he can’t,” Obama said. “And the consequences of that failure are severe… (O)ur democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
Obama’s speech was officially part of this pandemic year’s virtual Democratic National Convention. He championed the vice president who became his pal, Joe Biden, and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. But Obama was determined to prevent his successor from subverting our efforts to vote safely in this pandemic year.
What our 44th president didn’t know, as he spoke to us Wednesday, was that he could have made excellent use of another line spoken by our 38th president 46 years ago. As his just-resigned predecessor was flying to his exile in San Clemente, California, after being caught in his own web of Watergate lies, Ford uttered these simple-sounding but powerfully reassuring words:
“I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad.”
Today, that bond is not just strained but broken, at home and abroad, by Trump’s unending loop of lies. And that was the core of Obama’s urgent appeal. It was a call to arms. Obama was calling on Americans to arm ourselves with the powerful weapon the Constitution placed in our arsenal: our vote.
“This president and those in power … know they can’t win you over with their policies,” Obama said. “So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. … That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”
But not if we vote.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.