Take a look. Whatever one’s political affiliation, the senatorial leadership of both parties is anything but inspiring. And voices that might eloquently defend the Constitution, that might risk their own reputations for the good of the country, appear to be few. And diminishing. While it is depressing enough to lament the absence of Daniel Webster from the current United States Senate, it is in folklore that we discover how urgently we need a statesman of his stature.
In 1936 Stephen Benét published a short story entitled, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It was a reinvention of the Faustian legend, with a distinctly American audience in mind. In the story Jabez Stone is a poor farmer from New Hampshire. Overcome with desperation, he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for successful crops and subsequent wealth. When the debt comes due, the devil, traveling under the name of “Scratch,” returns to claim his prize. The prospect of actually surrendering his soul to the devil makes the farmer even more desperate, so he enlists the assistance of Daniel Webster who challenges Scratch in a court of law. Although the judge and jury are stacked against him—all conjured from the world of the damned—Webster’s oratory carries the night.
As a child I was fascinated by that story. I attended a Catholic school and in truth, some of the allure of Benét’s fable might have rested in the suggestion by the sisters that I was a bit like the devil, himself. But what I really wanted was to be like Daniel Webster and I imagined myself equally able to outwit the master of lies.
Even as a child I realized that legends such as this are not literal. They are parables—powerful myths that draw us into a world where we can be shaped by truth. But as an adult I have seen how easily that truth escapes us. For there’s a little Faust in everyone. Who among us has not wished for something so deeply that we say, “I’d sell my soul to the devil.” Of course, that’s only an expression. Until it isn’t. Until it becomes a reality. In America today, one is left to wonder.
Woven through a large segment of our society is a complete disregard for both fact and truth. We have become a people victimized and defeated by deceit. Perhaps victim is too generous a description. After all, we accepted deceit when we elected Donald Trump as president. The “Make America Great Again” cry was not just a campaign slogan. It was the rallying lie. For America was already great. But everything based on a lie eventually crumbles. And since Trump’s election America’s greatness has only dwindled on the world stage. Our allies watch in wonder as our president is played by one adversary after another—Russia, China, North Korea. We are learning with some regret that narcissism and buffoonery do not make America great. And fraying our long standing alliances makes the whole world weak. Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?
Perhaps for the nation the bill has not yet come due. In the meantime, the effects of selling America’s soul continue unabated, as hypocrisy, fraud and treachery emanate from the highest political offices, turning Washington D.C. into a city of prevarication. Explanations for alleged illegalities, such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting, change so rapidly they do not even come full circle. Rather, they descend in an unending downward spiral. On a daily basis we listen to President Trump lie, then double down on those lies and then lie about lying.
His press secretary, Sarah Sanders, forsakes the customary political spin in order to blatantly compound the president’s dishonesty. When asked at a cabinet meeting in July whether Russia is still targeting the U.S., we were able to see and hear Trump answer, “No.” Yet Sanders informed us that what we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears never really happened. Had she been capable of intellectual integrity, her statement would have been grievously offensive. As it is, it was merely absurd—and the take away distressing. Apparently it is not just the news that’s fake. Even our experiences are. In less than two years we have moved way beyond the fiction of the “largest inauguration crowd in history,”—another claim we were able to disprove with our own eyes. As it turns out, the inauguration fiction was merely a preamble of things to come.
Examples can be cited indicting nearly every cabinet officer and presidential appointee, both those who have departed their positions as well as their replacements. The Trump Administration, from cabinet officers to closest advisors to attorneys, all share something in common. And it is not fealty to their boss. Trump has surrounded himself with an avaricious crowd who place their own good above that of the country. Whether their greed is for money, or power, or influence, or merely to cement an ideology, they each have their reasons for selling their souls. Nor are those who left the Administration modern day versions of Jabez Stone. He regretted the deal he made with Scratch. I doubt that many former administration officials regret having joined team Trump in the first place.
Of course, all is not lost. The economy continues to improve as it did through most of President Obama’s time in office. And for Trump personally, although he remains one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, his ratings are strong among what is called his “base”—irrationally so, given his amorality, constant lies and astounding incompetence. And, of course, his most fundamental promise of draining the swamp was, arguably, his most disingenuous. Maybe it’s too soon to cry out for Daniel Webster. After all, we still have Congress.
Then again, the Republicans in Congress have completely abdicated their constitutional obligation to serve as a check and balance to the Trump administration. Enfolding his arms around Vladimir Putin, Trump placed the good of Russia (and most likely himself) above the good of America. By embracing the enemy of the state, Trump, himself, became the enemy. Still Congress does nothing. What other explanation exists than to acknowledge that they, too, have sold their souls to the devil? And what did they get in return? Paul Ryan got a tax cut, while Mitch McConnell got two Supreme Court nominees (although one might be tempted to wonder why he did not hold out for a little charisma).
Speaking of the Supreme Court, much has been made of Brett Kavanaugh’s lying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps no single lie stands out more brazenly than his response to the question about the sex game known as the Devil’s Triangle. Unflinchingly, Kavanaugh engaged the classic telltale mark of a liar. He paused and darted his eyes up to the right. One could almost see his mind whirling for a plausible answer. In that attempt he failed, instead proffering the absurd response that it was a drinking game.
It is difficult to ascertain what others, such as Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy received. And it is truly baffling to ponder what Lindsay Graham got in return for his soul. Maybe it was just the thrill of dealing with the devil—akin to the excitement of winning the lottery. Whatever the explanation, Scratch is now present and active in all three branches of government, and a cry is beginning to rise throughout the land, “Where is Daniel Webster now that we really need him?”
When Benét reinvented the Faustian legend he sought to accomplish two laudable goals. On the positive side his story intended to stir a patriotic sense of truth and justice; to suggest that politics was still a noble calling; to believe that a senator who is committed to placing the good of the country above personal or partisan power, might also be able to deal a decisive defeat to evil.
The second goal was a diabolical warning: The pact is sealed and the devil will have his due. Even if this Administration does not answer to Congress, eventually it will have to answer to Scratch. Without much difficulty one can already hear the voices of Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders, Scott Pruitt, Betsy Devos, John Bolton as well as countless elected officials wailing loudly, “Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?” But they will discover that reaching into myth and legend is of no avail.
Trump sold his soul to become president. Some might argue it was a fair trade. After all the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. Others might argue that the devil got the short end of that deal. Still others might suggest this whole discussion is an exercise in silly superstition, for many people no longer believe in the devil. But one thing emerges with absolute clarity: The patriotism and oratory of Daniel Webster has been silenced and is unlikely to return and reanimate a moribund Republican party.
On closer analysis there is yet another, less encouraging conclusion. It is something that even Benét did not anticipate. What if Scratch is the one occupying the Oval Office? That would explain a lot, not the least of which being the quotidian and ubiquitous falsehoods. After all, one of Satan’s nicknames is “Father of lies.” Clearly Satan is real. And just as clearly he has taken up residence in Washington—whatever his specific address. His hand is detected behind nearly every White House tweet. How ironic that the devil is the one who has truly mastered the art of the deal! Fable has morphed into reality, and this time no one will defeat Scratch. For I’m afraid that not even an entire senate full of Daniel Websters would be sufficient. We should not be asking “Where is Daniel Webster?” The real question is—was it worth the soul of America?
TRUMP TO PRIEST: “I Will Kill Myself!”
October 20, 2016
When my phone rang at 6:00 AM this morning, I had just stepped out of the shower. The screen indicated an unknown New York telephone number. I was about to push the reject button when curiosity won the day. And what a day!
“Good morning, Rev. Messenger. I hope I did not wake you. My name is Kellyanne Conway. Mr Trump would like to speak to you.”
It was way too early for a practical joke. Besides, I’m not a Trump supporter. Suspecting this was the work of one of my friends, I decided to play along.
“And why would he want to speak with me?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” she replied. That was my first indication that twisted truth was on the line. She answered media questions about Trump in just the same way.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll speak with him.”
“Hello, Rev. Messenger, this is Donald Trump.”
“Good morning, Mr. Trump. What can I do for you?”
“I need someone to talk to,” he replied.
“Because you’re a priest and a good counselor.”
“Why would you say that? You don’t even know me.”
“As you know, I’m very well liked. And I have friends, many, many friends in Los Angeles. They tell me good things about you.”
“I have to be honest with you, Mr. Trump…” He interrupted.
“Call me Donald.”
I continued, “I’m a Hillary supporter.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re a priest and I have a problem. Will you at least listen?”
This was a man I did not respect and I was tempted to decline. But he was right about the priest part. Listening to a soul in distress comes with the job. The voice I heard was desolate and full of anxiety. And I was intrigued. This did not sound like the Donald Trump I had seen at campaign rallies or read about in the papers. The Trump of the campaign trail would never admit to having problems.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Look. I never wanted to be president. I started this as a way to help Hillary. I’ve known her a long time. She’s a good person. Hillary and Bill were even at my third wedding. They both said very nice things about me.”
“You haven’t been saying very good things about her lately,” I prodded.
“That’s because she’s started saying mean things about me. At first I liked her. I started my campaign to force the other Republicans out, because I’m a winner. That’s what I do. I win. I thought low energy JEB would survive and then I could find an escape. But that fool quit and I couldn’t stop winning. All those other guys, and I include Carly Fiorina in that, they all turned out to be losers. Now I’m stuck.”
“You might not win, Mr. Trump. Hillary is way up in the polls. And that Access Hollywood tape only made matters worse.”
“I have a secret. I leaked that tape.”
I did not know where this conversation was going, but I did not believe him. I asked, “Why?”
“I was looking for a way out. I couldn’t quit. I’ve never done that in my life. That’s why I didn’t respond to the tape until my family forced me to. I thought maybe the useless Republican leadership would get rid of me. I could live with that. But they proved what I’ve been saying about them all along, especially Paul Ryan. He is disloyal and incompetent. They never wanted me.”
After years as a priest, I bought into the “nothing new under the sun” idea. This conversation changed that. What Trump told me on the phone was as bizarre as his candidacy itself. I tired to be reasonable.
“Mr. Trump, there’s no shame in dropping out of the race. Tell people you changed your mind. Tell them it’s not what you thought. Being president is not what you really want after all. They’ll accept that. I’m sure some people will be disappointed. But those who see you as real, who know you speak your mind, they won’t have a problem.”
“Listen, Reverend. I need you to understand. I can’t quit. I have to think of my fans. I have many of them. Millions all over the country. No Republican ever won as many votes in the primaries as I did. They want me to stay in the race. But I also can’t lose.”
“I’m not an expert in politics, Mr. Trump, but if you stay in you will lose.”
“And if I do, I will kill myself.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but then I was one of those people who did not take his candidacy seriously, either. So I cautiously asked, “What will you accomplish by suicide?”
“I’ll go out hugely. Just like I’ve lived. I’ve never lost before—at anything. I always found a way to win, even when I cheated on my previous wives. This will be my way out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“My life’s a mess right now. My daughter Tiffany thinks I’m a pig, Ivanka is tired of defending me and Melania is not even talking to me. Did you see her at the debate last night? She said if I lose the race she’ll leave me. Only my sons understand me. I raised them right. They’re just like me.”
“About that debate.”
“I know what you’re going to ask. You want to know why I won’t accept the results when Hillary wins. Because I won’t have to. I won’t be around to give a concession speech. That’s what I meant about keeping people in suspense.”
“But Mr. Trump…”
“Look, Reverend. I know I can’t win. Then, for the rest of my life I’d be known as a loser. That’s not who Donald Trump is. I built a great business with just a small loan from my father. It was all me. And I have properties all over world. Beautiful, massive properties worth billions of dollars. I won’t become a loser. I’ll kill myself if that happens.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“I already told you it’s because you are a priest. After I shoot myself you’ll know the reason and you can explain it to everyone. You can help people understand me. If I kill myself that is the only thing people will remember. They’ll forget about the weak Republican leadership, the rigged election. Maybe they’ll blame the media. But they’ll only say one thing about me—Donald Trump was huge. He even chose his own way out.”
I suddenly realized that I was dripping wet from my shower. I was standing with the towel in my hands and no telephone. Had I just been speaking with Donald Trump? Either my imagination had gone wild, or I was the victim of a cruel science fiction time warp.
If only the country could warp back to June 6, 2015. Maybe we could start over. Maybe Trump would not run. Maybe Donald Trump would not commit suicide on November 8, 2016. Maybe.