‘Exit, pursued by a bear’
Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” includes perhaps the most famous stage direction in the history of theater: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The character pursued, Antigonus, comes to a bad end. Worse yet, it happens off stage. As winter approaches, one wonders what President Trump, facing the end of his time in the limelight and awaiting battle with New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., would make of the Bard of Avon’s stage direction.
After four strange years, “Trump fatigue” has started to kick in, not only out of sheer exhaustion but also because the end is — well, seems to be — in sight. It’s been slow in coming, and the protracted endgame is already messier than anything we could have anticipated. He long ago mused that he deserves more time because he had (by his telling) a truncated first term and has suggested he will run again in 2024 if his efforts to overturn this year’s election continue to fizzle. His words cannot be dismissed as mere bravado. He has often said that he means what he says, and in that respect, at least, we must take him at his word.
Even if Trump finally concedes that Joe Biden won the election, he apparently has in mind to try again, à la Grover Cleveland. Cleveland lost a reelection bid in 1888 (although he beat Benjamin Harrison by eight-tenths of a point in the popular vote), and famously and uniquely returned to the White House four years later.
It would be fun to be able to take a leaf out of Lloyd Bentsen’s Oct. 5, 1988, vice-presidential debate with Dan Quayle: “Mr. President, I served with Grover Cleveland. I knew Grover Cleveland; he was a friend of mine. You’re no Grover Cleveland.” Trump is definitely no Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was committed to civil service reform, for example, while Trump has been an implacable foe of a merit-based, expert bureaucracy.
Even keeping open the threat of another run in four years would be disastrous. It would divert resources from other (better) Republican hopefuls and would keep GOP officeholders under the sword of Damocles of a Trumpian threat of being “primaried” if they show signs of independence. A healthy two-party system is in the country’s interest. Four years of distraction and waste of the political oxygen that is needed to restore the Republican Party and have it stand for something other than loyalty to one man must be averted.
A thought comes to mind from the annals of my old service, the U.S. Coast Guard. According to the agency’s historian —
“A ship was stranded off Cape Hatteras on the Diamond Shoals and one of the lifesaving crew reported the fact that this ship had run ashore on the dangerous shoals. The old skipper gave the command to man the lifeboat and one of the men shouted out that we might make it out to the wreck but we would never make it back. The old skipper looked around and said, ‘The Blue Book [U.S. Life-Saving Service Regulations, 1899] says we’ve got to go out and it doesn’t say a damn thing about having to come back.’”
At the risk of inviting hate mail from old shipmates, I’ll admit that I have a hunch the story is apocryphal. But there’s no doubt that it has morphed over time into an adage known to every good Coastie: “You have to go out, you don’t have to come back.”
Trump should heed both clauses. Come Jan. 20, he does have to go out, and come 2024, he does not have to come back.
Eugene R. Fidell is a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and is of counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. He edits the blog Global Military Justice Reform, globalmjreform.blogspot.com, and is on the steering committee of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
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