by Robert Morrison
Trump promises to “make America great again.” And he mocked a reporter with a grievous disability. He doesn’t see any contradiction. I do. America the Cruel can never be America the Great.
I had the high privilege of studying under Britain’s Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. He was one of the greatest diplomatic historians of all time. Sir John knew Churchill, Roosevelt, Trotsky, Hindenburg. He even helped the young Jack Kennedy write his senior thesis for Harvard! If anyone understood greatness in a country or in its leaders, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett did. Sir John was also the Biographer Royal of King George VI. Most Americans know that King, if they know him at all, as the Royal who had a crippling speech impediment.
The movie, The King’s Speech, powerfully portrays the greatness of that monarch—and, especially, of his speech coach Lionel Logue. It was Logue who brought out the King’s best efforts. Together Lionel Logue, a devoted wife, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum), and the determination of the King himself overcame adversity.
It’s a great story. And one fully in keeping with that Great Generation of World War II heroes.
The First Summit of heads of state occurred in June, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to America. They were the first reigning British monarchs to set foot on American soil.
The President and Mrs. Roosevelt entertained the young couple at the family estate in Duchess County, New York. As the King and Queen were driven along the Hudson River from Manhattan to Hyde Park to see the Roosevelts, they were cheered all along the way.
The King and Queen knew that war was coming. Everyone in Europe knew it. So this Summit Meeting with the most popular leader of the most powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere would be of crucial importance. Would the President and the King get along? Or would they merely go through the motions, make nice, and smile for the cameras?
Riding along the Hudson, the King and Queen must have seen the hundreds of old U.S. Navy destroyers, anchored along the river, put into “mothballs,” as they said then. Might this have been the germ of an idea?Roosevelt and the King hit it off splendidly. Eleanor captured headlines around the world by serving the Royals a picnic lunch of hot dogs and beans. How democratic.
FDR and the King talked long into the night. They had cocktails and conversation for hours. And the King introduced the idea that would later become Lend Lease. He suggested the U.S. just might lend Britain some of those old World War I destroyers.
Why did Roosevelt and King George VI strike up such an intimate and heartfelt meeting of the minds? We cannot dismiss the fact that both families attended worship services at the Roosevelts’ family parish, St. James’ Episcopal Church. The Queen would later remark: “It’s just like ours.”
But Sir John saw what few others saw in the Roosevelt-King George VI friendship. FDR had famously overcome his handicap. He was never cured of polio, but he did not allow that disability to prevent him from giving powerful leadership to his nation and the world.
Wheeler-Bennett appreciated how their shared experience of overcoming crippling handicaps led the President and the King to form a deep emotional bond that led on to greatness. This is why Churchill bowed to FDR and handed him a letter of introduction on their first meeting. The letter came from Roosevelt’s great friend, King George VI.
Only forty years after I was his student did I learn that Sir John Wheeler-Bennett had also overcome a paralyzing stammer. We his students never guessed. Sir John also was coached by Lionel Logue. It was for this very reason that Wheeler-Bennett was chosen to write the life of the late beloved King.
Trump can never make America great again. There is no greatness in him. He doesn’t know what greatness is. He suffers a disabling condition, one of which he is not even aware: His soul is parched