So it now appears that the president has deep feelings about the sufferings of infants, or, as he would say, “very, very deep feelings, believe me.” This was apparent when he talked about the gas attack on Syrian civilians last week. Scores of people were killed but it was the sight of dying babies on TV (“it doesn’t get any worse than that”) that particularly moved the man to reconsider his hands-off policy toward Syria and send the USS Ross and USS Porter to the eastern Mediterranean to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base. Presumably, no infants were housed at the base.
The White House denied, verbally, that his decision was an emotional response to the pictures of dead babies, but the video of an emotional president talking about innocent little babies and cupping his hands to emphasize their tininess is more persuasive to me.
It has been widely reported that the White House has asked the president’s intelligence briefers to make the briefings more visual, less wordy, simple graphics rather than blocks of print. This seems problematic: Much intelligence comes in written form, digests of interviews and reports from multiple sources, which would not be accurately depicted, say, by a cartoonist, but the news surprised approximately nobody. The man is a TV viewer, not known to be interested in books. So be it. A man of 70, having lived with TV on nearby, maybe two or three going simultaneously, is not going to suddenly pick up Robert Caro or Doris Kearns Goodwin and start learning about LBJ and FDR. Nobody expects DJT to do that.
But to single out babies as a separate category of humanity is interesting. King Herod slaughtered babies, hoping to do away with the Christ child, an atrocity, but it is not fundamental to our Christian faith. Babies died horribly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but their deaths are not separate from the roughly 200,000 who were exterminated in those cities. When the story of the My Lai massacre came out in 1969, a year after it occurred, the outrage was that several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians had been gunned down by Lt. William Calley Jr.’s company, not that a certain number of them were babes in arms.
The My Lai visuals that came to light were pictures taken by U.S. Army photographers, bodies on a roadway, terrified women huddled together, one young woman in a black blouse who had, according to witnesses, been raped by our soldiers, and who was holding a little boy. The public outcry did not lead President Richard Nixon to change course in Vietnam, nor even to make an emotional speech about the horror of war. Nixon was a reader, an ambitious reader, an intellectual. There are photographs of him at his desk, stacks of paper around, and he is poring over them studiously. The photograph of the little boy lying in a ditch, waiting for an American soldier to kill him, was not going to shake Nixon. He set out to minimize the impact of the scandal and he did a good job of it. More than two-dozen soldiers were recommended for court martial, only five were tried, one was convicted and his sentence was mostly set aside. So much for babies.
Many of the president’s supporters felt betrayed by his U-turn on Syria. Almost a half-million have died in that horrible war, many of them under the age of 1, and the thought that we would court direct conflict with Russia because a Syrian father was seen on TV carrying his two dead infants was dizzying to the America Firsters. On the other hand, many Democrats approved.
Clearly, the way to influence the man is not to write scholarly books about climate change or health care. If he brings back coal, the smoke will harm babies and the challenge is to get video of newborns gasping under their oxygen masks. If he eventually succeeds in removing Obamacare, some people will perish as a result, including infants. Our country may someday get a national health-insurance program for everybody, but only after there is a video of a father carrying two dead babies out of an ER where they arrived too late to be saved, the father unable to pay his doctor bills.
I have a friend who voted for Trump in the belief that, though he was sleazy and dishonest and inexperienced, he (unlike most Republicans) had no fixed principles whatsoever and so, under the pressure of presidency, might abandon his campaign malarkey and become a pragmatist and do the right thing. I’ve met more people who support Trump on the same grounds. If they’re right, it will have a very, very big impact on me, believe me, and my attitude on Trump will change very much. Very much.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.