So at one point that Saturday evening at Camp David, they all took a break from the first challenge to ponder the second.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft sat down at the piano and they joined in on gospel hymns. That night at dinner, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice offered a prayer: “We have seen the face of evil, but we are not afraid.”
Now, we learn that the current occupant of the White House actually proposed inviting that murderous face of evil — the Taliban — to Camp David itself. What’s more, he planned to do it just days before the anniversary of 9/11.
That nothing is sacred to President Trump is something we should have figured out long ago. But that does not mean we should lose our ability to be shocked by his continuous desecration of collective norms, institutions and symbols.
Al-Qaeda carried out the actual attacks on 9/11, but its operation would not have been possible without the support and assistance of the Islamic militants of the Taliban. “The immediate problem we faced after 9/11 was to find a strategy to defeat the Taliban,” Rice wrote in her 2011 memoir.
Nearly two decades later, however, the Taliban is still there, and it has never renounced the supporting role it played on 9/11.
Trump’s half-baked idea to invite its leaders to Camp David was another one of those reality-television-style stunts that he seems to find irresistible.
Camp David exists to provide our leaders a spot for contemplation and reflection — two things for which Trump has little regard. Shortly before he became president, Trump told European journalists: “Camp David is very rustic, it’s nice, you’d like it. You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes.”
Trump no doubt regards the place as he does everything else — as a branding opportunity. He perhaps even thought there might be a Nobel Peace Prize waiting for him as a reward.
He assumed Americans would hear an echo of the retreat’s most famous moment, which came in 1978. That year, then-President Jimmy Carter hosted weeks of summit negotiations there that produced the Camp David Accords, a framework for Middle East peace signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Built in the 1930s by the Works Project Administration, the site was converted to a retreat for Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after the United States joined World War II, giving him a place to escape the pressure and heat of Washington. So enamored was FDR with the setting and the view that he christened it Shangri-La, after the fictional Himalayan paradise in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.”
Back then, the existence of the retreat was still a state secret. Roosevelt traveled back and forth in the only armored car in the United States, which had been seized from gangster Al Capone in 1932 after he was nailed for tax evasion. For Roosevelt, it also became a secluded venue for sensitive business. He and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did some of the planning for D-Day there.
To Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had grown up in a Kansas farm town, the name Shangri-La sounded a tad too fancy for a place he went to relax. He changed it in 1953 to Camp David, after his young grandson.
Eisenhower also set a precedent for inviting adversaries to Camp David, as well as allies. In 1959, he hosted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev there for two days, in talks that began on a high note of optimism but failed to bring them any closer.
“There have been plenty of so-called bad people brought up to Camp David for meetings,” Trump said on Monday. “And the alternative was the White House, and you wouldn’t have been happy with that, either.”
It is admirable that Trump wants to end a war that has gone on for far too long. But an invitation to Camp David conveys legitimacy, something the Taliban has yet to earn.