Say what you please of the Trump White House, it has retired the trophy for brassy prevarication. The crowning touch is a novel coinage, previously unknown to American statecraft, “executive time.”
Whether it is the concoction of Trump himself, or that of some obscure flunky, this is the official term for much of Trump’s workday, tweeting insults and gabbing on the telephone. He usually lingers in the residential precincts of the White House until about 11 a. m., before descending to the West Wing and duty.
Added to the novel term — clearly an excuse for negligence — former Speaker Newt Gingrich now claims that Trump’s slovenly habits are no big deal, since none other than the great Winston Churchill set the precedent in the 1930s for staying up all night and sleeping all morning.
The implied comparison draws on Churchillian myth that has the great Briton sleep-walked in a mist of brandy and champagne. It is mostly baloney but remains the bogus “history” of those who don’t read.
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If the comparison interests you, authoritative correction is at hand in Peter Clarke’s informative book, “Mr. Churchill’s Profession.” Clarke, sometime Regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, contends that Churchill’s true profession (signally marked by his 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature) was not merely that of a ranking politician but also of an accomplished author, journalist and historian.
In the 1930s, when Churchill was temporarily out of office (though a member of Parliament and a prophetic one) he wrote a multi-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, and some 400,000 words of his later 1954 History of the English Speaking Peoples. He also completed two popular books of an autobiographical flavor, My Early Life and Great Contemporaries, which are still in print, and lectured and traveled widely while preparing memorable orations against the evil designs of Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, at Chartwell, his beloved country estate, he was building brick walls and presiding at well-lubricated dinner parties -- following which, as others began to think of bed, he was revving up to work with secretaries and research assistants into the wee hours, usually retiring at 2 a. m. (The metabolic secret, it seems, was an hour’s afternoon nap.)
And did he sleep all morning? He did not. He awoke early, sipped a mild scotch and soda in bed after breakfast while digesting the British newspapers, taking care of his contacts, and, incidentally, writing a biweekly column for at least two dailies throughout the period. And this is a mere sketch of a productive political and scholarly life that reached its height and destiny in 1940 when he was summoned to redeem, as Prime Minister, the years dangerously wasted by political predecessors during his absence from office. Clarke tells that familiar story too, though his emphasis is on a busy, sometimes almost frantic, writing schedule essential to the life-style of a Duke’s grandson.
The feeble label for presidential negligence we are hearing from the White House -- “executive time” -- would have been alien to Churchill, even if this evasive term had existed. Indeed, there was something in common between Churchill and Trump: both held high office and both were often labeled geniuses -- though Trump only by himself. But there the fancied parallels end. Trump spends his few working hours undermining the foundations Churchill laid for Western security.
It is undeniable that Churchill drank more than most of us. He once asked his science adviser, Lord Lindeman, whether his lifetime’s consumption of intoxicants would fill the railroad coach they happened to be riding in at the moment. Lindeman consulted his slide rule, and the calculation was disappointing. It would cover the floor a foot deep only. Trump, on the other hand, is said to be a teetotaler. Could that be the crucial difference?
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is retired after a career as a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.