Our fearless leader didn’t waste any time in lacquering the dawn of 2020 with his trademark carroty-orange stain. The first few days of the new year have generally been momentous ones for U.S. presidents. Time for fresh starts, new horizons, expansive rhetoric about the future of the country—those sorts of things. In the first 11 days of years past, George Washington delivered the inaugural State of the Union address; Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency; Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty; and George H. W. Bush signed the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
As expected, there were no such expressions of hope and unity from Trump. Tethered to his gold-leaf bunker in Palm Beach—a town now so stuffed with ex–New York tax-avoiding miscreants that it is fast becoming the Paraguay of America—the president chose to usher in the new year by unleashing the hounds of hell in the Middle East. Things may have quieted after the Iranian response, but the complications that might arise from the assassination of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani were no doubt lost on the man who ordered it. Yes, Soleimani was a terrorist mastermind who brought untold mayhem to the world. But he was also our ally in the fight against ISIS. And perhaps more importantly, a revered military figure in his country.
Tethered to his gold-leaf bunker in Palm Beach, the president chose to usher in the new year by unleashing the hounds of hell in the Middle East.
As Janine di Giovanni points out in her Letter from Cairo in this issue, killing Soleimani was, to Iranians, akin to what the killing of General George Patton would have been to Americans. With that single action, she writes, “Trump had achieved more than anything the Iranian government could ever contemplate: in one swift act lacking any long-term strategic thinking, he had united the frustrated Iranian people against their enemy.”
Trump is not the first American president to underestimate the pride other nations have for their sovereignty and for their leaders. And they serially do this at their—and our—peril.
With all the truth tellers and experienced hands having been purged from the administration, opacity and incompetence are now the order of the day in the Trump war room. And that is a wicked and lethal combination. A commander in chief should normally be given the benefit of the doubt in such a dire matter. But Trump’s serial lying, self-dealing, preening ignorance, and shoot-from-the-hip style of diplomacy make this impossible.
Trump didn’t bother giving Congress, or our allies, a heads-up on the move, which threw thousands of Western personnel and strategic sites in immediate and long-term harm’s way. That was a mistake of epic proportions and one that I suspect will haunt the White House for some time. In this administration, the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing—I’m not sure the right hand knows what the right thumb is doing. Trump tweets his intention to hit 52 sites—some of them of cultural significance (a war crime not only on the world stage but in the U.S.). That is quickly shot down by his secretary of defense, Mark Esper. The letter sent to the Iraqis informing them of U.S. troop withdrawals was also then recalled, adding yet another global embarrassment to this White House’s tattered record. When an administration can’t handle the intricacies of Microsoft Word, you have to wonder about its ability to steer the American war machine.
The thing is, and this is important, the president is a man with the face of a bully but the heart of a coward. His bravado shows itself only when he’s in conflict with a weaker party, a smaller opponent. He picks on the subcontractor to whom he owes money; the tenant he’s evicting; the condominium owner who says the apartment is crap. Trump never squares off against an equal or a superior—look at the way he purrs like a smitten schoolgirl around Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping, as well as Erdogan, Duterte, and Putin. When it comes to the more civil members of the Western world—the leaders of the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France—only then does he lapse into his default mode of swaggering and belittling. He’s on his best behavior around his fellow autocrats because he knows they have his number.
When an administration can’t handle the intricacies of Microsoft Word, you have to wonder about its ability to steer the American war machine.
Trump should heed the milestones of presidential history for an indication of where his future in the Oval Office lies. As welcome as the first days of a new year have proved for some presidents, for others, they have been periods of looming sorrow. In the early days of new years past, Richard Nixon’s top aides Attorney General John Mitchell, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, and adviser John Ehrlichman were all found guilty of obstruction of justice in the Watergate affair. And on January 7, 1999, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton commenced. History has a dogged way of repeating itself.
The end of 2019 marked the end of a certain period in the world of letters, with the death of Sonny Mehta. He ran Alfred A. Knopf for more than three decades like a quiet emperor, bringing in best-sellers that were highbrow, middlebrow, and lots in between. Sonny and his wife, Gita, were the Fred and Ginger of the literary set, every bit as elegant as Hollywood stars, and every bit as clever as the writers who sought their attention. Sonny was kindly, thoughtful, funny, and as Pico Iyer points out in his tribute in this issue, he managed to be both warm and cool at the same time. Sonny favored cigarettes and turtlenecks, and he wore a Nehru jacket better than anyone including Nehru himself.
Sonny and his wife, Gita, were the Fred and Ginger of the literary set.
I will never forget the kindness he and Gita showed me when I took over Vanity Fair in 1992. I was not a popular choice given my years of making fun of the magazine when I was co-editor of Spy. For all too many people in the social and literary enclaves of New York, it was like handing the fox the keys to the henhouse. But Sonny called after I got the job, and he and Gita and I met for drinks at their apartment on Park and then headed over to a nearby restaurant for dinner, where we were joined by Jackie Collins, whom Sonny had published during his stint running Pan Books in London. It might seem like a small gesture, but it meant the world to me.
We both worked for Si Newhouse—Si and his family owned both Condé Nast (the owner of Vanity Fair) and Random House (the owner of Knopf). And like me, Sonny worshipped Si and loved working for him. After the Newhouse family sold Random, Sonny managed any number of transitions—occasionally with a grimace, but most often with grace. At the end he was not only editor in chief of Knopf but the chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
His list of authors reads like a Who’s Who of the greats of the last half of the 20th century. He also brought in some lesser talents. Me, for instance. I signed a contract with Sonny to write a book about a World War I aerial photographer named Alfred Buckham. But what with one thing or another, including new apartments, new jobs, new children, I just never got around to finishing the book. In fact, I may hold some kind of record for a late manuscript commissioned by him. Mine is not a few months overdue. It’s 31 years overdue. In Sonny’s honor, I will endeavor to finish it this year.