By Frank Bowman
Return with me now to April 1941. Germany has overrun France and all of western Europe. The British saved their army the previous year with a fighting withdrawal from Dunkirk. But their cities are being blasted from the air by the German Blitz and their ocean supply lines are being strangled by German U-boats. The freedom of the last island bastion against Hitler’s tyranny hangs by a thread.
In March, the U.S. Congress had passed the Lend-Lease Act, permitting America to lend or lease (rather than sell) military supplies to any country deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Britain is cash-strapped and desperate for the gusher of food, arms, and equipment America’s farms and factories could provide under the terms of the new bill.
But somehow the aid is mysteriously held up. Prime Minister Churchill calls President Roosevelt on the newfangled transatlantic telephone.
CHURCHILL: Mr. President. A great pleasure to speak with you. This island is in grave danger of being starved out of the war against the Nazi menace. We need supplies to carry on the fight. It had been my hope that the generosity expressed in the magnificent Lend-Lease Act would by now be filling the holds of convoys of merchantmen steaming across the Atlantic. I am told, however, that there have been unaccountable delays.
ROOSEVELT: You’re right. We’re generous. I’m generous. The most generous. Do a lot for you, I guess you call it England. Or Britain. Or whatever. More than anybody. A lot more than those Frenchies.
CHURCHILL: Our gallant French allies suffered greatly and …
ROOSEVELT: Gallant! Ha! Buncha frog-eating losers. But we’ve been very, very good to you Brits. I wouldn’t say it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good.
CHURCHILL: Mr. President, I’m sure any issues that impede our two great democracies standing shoulder-to-shoulder against Hitler’s barbarism can be resolved with frank discussions between our military and diplomatic experts.
ROOSEVELT: Don’t know what you got against Hitler. He says nice things about me. Regardless, General Marshall and all my generals, and Cordell Hull and all his Deep State crowd at the State Department say I should let you have the aid. But I’d like you to do me a favor, though.
CHURCHILL: Anything to advance the common cause of the free peoples of the world.
ROOSEVELT: You remember that Wilkie guy I beat in 1940. Greatest victory in history. Biggest crowds. Everybody says so. Well, anyway, Wilkie’s married, but I hear he’s got action on the side. Van Doren’s her name. I hear she wrote letters to some dame in London, spilling it all. If I had those letters, that’d fix his wagon for 1944.
CHURCHILL: Mr. President, I’m not sure…
ROOSEVELT: Oh, and one other thing, Doug MacArthur. He’s out in the Philippines now. May need him as a general if the Japs get frisky. But he’s got White House fever. Some people say his wife had shady dealings with bankers in your Singapore colony before the war.
CHURCHILL: We looked into that. There was nothing to the rumors.
ROOSEVELT: Just announce you’re reopening an investigation. That’ll do fine. Until then, good luck with those U-boats.
This fictional dialogue reads like farce because we cannot imagine Franklin Delano Roosevelt extorting personal political favors as the price of keeping Britain free and an ally against spreading dictatorship. Indeed, it is impossible to envision any of the historical moments that defined America and tested its presidents and insert into the frame a personality as ignorant, as rude, as shallow, as self-interested, and as unprincipled as Donald Trump. But the analogy between my farce and Trump’s real-world extortion of a Ukraine besieged by expansionist Russia is far too close for comfort.
Precisely because it is impossible to imagine an American president from our rightly storied past acting like Donald Trump does every day of our frighteningly diminished present, his enablers and acolytes are forced to pretend that events which undeniably happened never happened at all.
Or worse, as the evidence becomes so overwhelming that even some Republicans grudgingly admit the facts of Trump’s conduct, some defend him with an unpardonable libel on every one of his predecessors – that it is normal, or at least unexceptional, that an American president should leverage the massive power of the United States to against an imperiled democracy for personal gain.
Donald Trump will pass. That’s certain. What is achingly uncertain is whether he –and those who cling to him – will warp our conception of ourselves so far that we can never recover the essential decency that is the core of the American identity and the true source of our power among the nations.
[Historical footnotes: Wendell Wilkie reportedly did have an extramarital affair with a Ms. Van Doren. The reference to “shady dealings” by Gen. McArthur’s wife is my invention; so far as I know, Mrs. McArthur never had any connections in Singapore and was rigorously correct in her private life.]