Just before dawn on May 9 1970, President Richard Nixon put on a record. He played a piece of Rachmaninoff and then, on the spur of the moment, headed out of the White House to the Lincoln Memorial, where he found a small group of students protesting about the Vietnam war. He talked with them until the sun began to rise and crowds started to gather.
It was a strange, risky, rambling thing for a US president to do: but his intentions were good ones. By contrast, in Washington in June 2020, President Donald Trump has just used tear gas and flash grenades to clear peaceful protesters from the streets so he could stage the stunt of visiting a church for a few minutes, surrounded by massive security, where he was photographed holding up a Bible.
America has leaders who have risen to the horrific challenge of calming rage on the streets of many of its cities — but Mr Trump is not one of them.
He has called the protesters “terrorists”, and state governors who are trying to cope “jerks”.
He has encouraged the militarisation of the response, which has only fuelled the rage.
He has shown no sign of recognising that the event which sparked this crisis, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who could not breathe while a police officer pinned him to the ground, was truly awful.
Protesters around the world have shown understandable outrage. The officer involved has been charged with murder.
None of this seems to have got through to the President. Instead Americans have had to turn to others for leadership: to individual police officers who have shown courage in talking to protesters, not fighting them; to city mayors such as Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, who spoke of her fears for her children and of Dr Martin Luther King; and to Barack Obama, who wrote yesterday that the protests sprang from “a genuine and legitimate frustration” with the way the police treated people. That made the violent behaviour of some mobs all the more disgraceful, he said. “If we want our criminal justice system … to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”
Where Mr Trump calls for force to be used outside the normal structures of civil society, Mr Obama argues for democracy. Protesters can only bring change by voting for people who will respond to their demands, he says. And he’s right.
Almost every state has been hit by this disaster. There are pictures of violence and destruction from coast to coast. In the middle of coronavirus, the consequences could not be worse.
Mr Trump, who has never had much respect for democracy, wants to define himself through his noisy, angry response.
This is a test for a country and a constitution which is much older and much bigger than any one man, even the President.
Chaos will not be beaten back by force. “The choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both,” Mr Obama argues.
The whole world will be hoping his country listens to the 44th president and not the 45th.
Rebellion in the ranks
The Government’s plan to force MPs to queue up in person to vote is risky, unnecessary and won’t work.
The growing rebellion against it is right. Even so, ministers will probably get their way, although the consequences won’t be the ones they had expected.
A few weeks ago it seemed a clever idea to drag as many MPs as possible back into the Commons, so that Tories could make lots of noise during Prime Minister’s Questions.
The plan was to drown out Keir Starmer’s sharp questioning, which has more effect in the courtroom-like silence of a socially distanced Commons.
But now the return of MPs is backfiring, as Tories start to turn instead on some of the mistakes the Government is making.
The justified rebellion against plans for travel quarantine is one sign. MPs need to get back to normal business, but there’s no need to scrap remote voting to do that.
The Government will regret provoking the House of Commons.