Vail Daily column: Past presidents’ advice on coping with heavy criticism
In his speech to the graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on May 17, President Donald Trump declared of himself, “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.” But same as “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the wounded soul …” there is a healing balm for Trump. This balm can be acquired from a review of past presidents and how they responded to the barrage of criticism they had to endure.
Consider former President Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828. His critics first accused him of acts of atrocities committed against the British, Spanish and Native Americans. Then attacks were made on his mother and his wife. Jackson was accused of having been born of a mother who was a prostitute and of being a wife stealer. They called Rachel Jackson a bigamist, a black wench and a profligate woman unfit to be the wife of a president of the United States. (Andrew and Rachel had been married while Rachel’s divorce papers to her first husband had been filed but not yet legally recorded.)
Barely more than one month after Jackson’s election, Rachel Jackson died Dec. 22, 1828, of a heart attack and was buried on that Christmas Eve. A proud Southern woman, Rachel was deeply wounded by her vilification. Andrew Jackson went to his first inauguration without his beloved wife.
In 1861, the North had suffered repeated battlefield losses, despite superiority of numbers and of arms. Lincoln’s general in chief of the Army, George McClellan, openly displayed insolence and contempt to his commander in chief and referred to him as “the original gorilla.” John Hay, Lincoln’s White House aide, relates Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity. He would hold McClellan’s horse if a victory could be achieved.”
Trump does face heavy criticism, like all former presidents. Lincoln said, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business.” Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Also from Truman, “The buck stops here.” John F. Kennedy, after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, said, “Failure has no friends.” Further from former President Abraham Lincoln, “I do the very best I can. I mean to keep going. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won’t matter. If I am wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right won’t make a difference.”
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From British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” And, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Revealing some humility to critics he admitted, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”
A recurring theme of advice from presidents and prime ministers is self-restraint. From Churchill, “We are masters of the unsaid words but slaves of those we let slip out.” Further, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is what it takes to sit down and listen.” Washington said, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” Lincoln offered, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” And, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”
Past presidents have been there and done that in surviving relenting criticism. Their wisdom can help us move forward if we are willing to listen. Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Ike said, “Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”
JFK concluded, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” From Lincoln, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” And, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends!” Best of all, from Abe, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
David W. Hunt is an Edwards resident.