“What would Andrew Shepherd do?”
Liberals (or “hyper liberals” as I was recently called) of a certain age have something of a wet dream fantasy about the 1990s movie The American President. For those of you who haven’t seen it or have forgotten it, it’s the gauzy reimagining of the Clinton presidency without the messy bits of scandal and – prominently – without the First Lady. With snappier dialogue, better cheekbones and a tragicom plot line of the widowed President Andrew Shepherd raising a daughter and finding love in the Lincoln bedroom, it’s a reliable feel-good movie on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. Spoiler alert: turns out it’s possible to be an ethical, honest elected official, speak the truth, fix the economy, settle the debate on gun control, eviscerate the politics of division and get the girl.
Thus, in times of controversy, we liberals of a certain age are prone to ask the question, “What would Andrew Shepherd do?”
Fortunately, Aaron Sorkin anticipated just the sort of event we’ve seen play out this week and it’s an instructional – albeit fictional – bit of content:
INT. THE SITUATION ROOM – NIGHT. SHEPHERD, A.J., the SECRETARY OF STATE, the SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, and about a dozen or so Pentagon, Security Council, and Joint Chiefs OFFICIALS are doing exactly what they’re trained for.
CHAIRMAN (continuing) “…The F-18’s are fired up on the Kimitz and the Kitty Hawk. They’re just waiting for your attack order, Mr. President.”
SHEPHERD “And we’re gonna hit Libyan Intelligence Headquarters?”
MAN “The N.S.A. confirmed they’re the ones who planned the bombing.”
CHIEF OF STAFF “What’s the estimate?”
GENERAL “We’ll level the building.”
SHEPHERD “Libyan I.H.Q’s in the middle of downtown Tripoli — are we gonna hit anything else?”
GENERAL “Only if we miss.”
SHEPHERD “Are we gonna miss?”
GENERAL “No, sir.”
SHEPHERD “How many people work in that building?”
CHAIRMAN “We’ve been all through–”
SHEPHERD “How many people work in the damn building?”
DEPUTY “I’ve got those number here. There are three shifts, so it–”
SHEPHERD “The fewest. What shift puts the fewest people in the building? The night shift, right?”
DEPUTY “By far. Mostly custodial staff and a few–”
SHEPHERD “What time does the night crew go on?”
DEPUTY “They’re on now, sir.”
CHIEF OF STAFF: “It’s immediate, it’s decisive, it’s low risk, and it’s a proportional response.”
SHEPHERD Someday somebody’s going to have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response.
There’s a SILENCE. SHEPHERD gets up and starts to head out the door.
CHAIRMAN “Mr. President?”
CUT TO: INT. OVAL OFFICE – NIGHT
SHEPHERD is with CHIEF OF STAFF and a couple of AIDES, all of whom look as though they’ve been called out of their homes in the middle of the night.
CHIEF OF STAFF “Robin, as soon as our planes have cleared Libyan airspace, you can call the press. I don’t know when we’ll have the full B.D.A.–”
AIDE 1 “General Rork says around O-Eight Hundred.”
AIDE 2 “Sir, what do you think about a national address?”
SHEPHERD “The last thing I want to do is put the Libyans center stage.”
AIDE 3 “I think it’s a great idea, sir. You know Rumson’s gonna be talking about your lack of military service.”
SHEPHERD “This isn’t about Rumson. What I did tonight was not about political gain.”
AIDE 3 “But it can be, sir. What you did tonight was very presidential.”
SHEPHERD “Leon, somewhere in Libyan right now there’s a janitor working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about his job ’cause he has no idea that in about an hour he’s gonna die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job ’cause he has no idea that an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You just saw me do the least presidential thing I do.”
AIDE 3 “Yes, sir.”
I’ve never been in the White House situation room. I’ve never been a part of a decision like this. I can’t say definitively what President Trump’s decision making process was in terms of if and how we should respond to Syria’s gassing of its citizens. I can only judge by what I can observe from afar, what I know of Mr. Trump by studying him over the last year or so and what’s reported in the not-fake news. Based on those sources, it appears to me that Mr. Trump’s decision to dramatically increase our engagement in one of the most difficult geopolitical issues in the world went something like this:
“”Oh, look at what’s on TV now…That’s terrible…this Assad guy is a bad dude…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…I’ll tell the generals….oh, look at what’s on TV now…”
I also suspect that President Trump does not see his decision as “the least presidential thing I do” but just the opposite. My profound fear is that he enjoyed this exercise of presidential power – 59 cruise missiles is a pretty substantial mood shifter – and that it felt good. I fear that he’s right now watching television again and seeing people across the political spectrum praise him (or at least not criticize him so robustly as on other issues) and thinking, “That worked…people like it…we have lots of those missiles…nobody likes that North Korean guy…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…China will respect us…I’ll tell the generals….”
In other words, not an Andrew Shepherd moment.