Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Loneliest Liberal: Trump at the dinner table

Business as usual

By James Knudsen

We are currently in the midst of the latest drama to come out of the Trump White House. It is alleged that President Trump asked then-FBI Chief James Comey to “let go” of the Russia investigation. I offer the following explanation of the thinking – er, the mindset – behind that statement. I’m not making an apology and I’m not excusing a President seeking to make an uncomfortable situation go away. My only hope is to illuminate.
    Before becoming a theatre professor, I spent many years trying to make a living in one form or another of sales. I was terrible in every case. With the benefit of hindsight, I am able to see why this was never a good fit for me. And having observed those who were anywhere from competent to truly gifted, I understand the qualities that allow some to excel where others fail.
    One area where I always came up short was in the area of communication. I was never comfortable using certain types of language on the sales floor. In particular, I’ve never been fond of using superlatives. Best, finest, fastest are words we all hope apply to our car, but I always knew that none of those adjectives applied to the cars I sold, and thus I never uttered them.
    And then there is the whole problem of asking someone to purchase something. That is ultimately what is occurring, and the idea of asking someone to hand over their money, to me, seemed awkward. I’m certain that many a potential buyer left the lot – or the mall, when I sold portable electronics – simply because I found that part of the transaction uncomfortable.
    Not everyone labors with this psychological baggage. Having never taken a single college-level business course, I can only speculate on what is discussed in BUS 101, but I imagine that students are correctly informed that customers walk into a place of business because they want to buy something. Operating from that premise, asking them to spend some money isn’t rude or untoward, it’s just business. If I were to spend more time in the business world, I would discover that there is a language, a culture, a way of doing things that is perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable. The Marine Corps, too, has a way of doing things that you need to spend time around in order for it to seem other than incomprehensible.

Greatness is easy to spot. You know it when you see it. I’m not old enough to remember watching Gale Sayers play football on my TV screen. His brief career ended just as I was discovering the game, but his playing over the course of just seven years, five of which can be considered truly productive, was enough to get him elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His explosiveness on the field made it nearly impossible to get a clean shot at tackling him. Sayers’s famous quote, “...eighteen inches of daylight, that’s all I need,” speaks of his legendary ability to break through the line in the blink of an eye.
    I observed that same sort of greatness at the beginning of this century, not on the playing field, but around the dinner table.
    A group consisting of myself and a number of my graduate school classmates decided to meet for an early dinner at an Italian chain restaurant known for its family-style menu. During the course of the meal, one of our number discovered that some gum, previously stuck to the underside of the table, was now stuck to her pant leg. She summoned the waitress and suggested that the gum be cleaned off the bottom of the table once we had left. Moments later the restaurant manager appeared at our table and offered to pick up the cleaning bill for removing the offending gum. My classmate, having never intended to make a fuss, waved off the suggestion, “Oh, that’s all right, it’s…,” and at this moment it happened. Another classmate, Dan, inserted himself into the conversation. Firmly, politely, and yet with a tone in his voice that identified him as a member of the business class, he said, “Free dessert would be great.” The manager, hearing this and recognizing that she was dealing with a business mind, shifted her focus and immediately replied, “I can do that. How about bread pudding for the table?”
    “Sounds good,” was Dan’s satisfied reply.
    For the next few minutes the rest of us murmured amongst ourselves, wondering, asking – largely in disbelief –what had just happened?
    “Wait, did we just get free dessert?”
    “Is that allowed?”
    “Have you done that before?”
    The answer to all three questions is yes. Dan had seen his eighteen inches of daylight. The manager, playing on the same field, chose to hold him to a long gain and a first down, rather than let him break free into the corporate defensive backfield and have the regional manager pick up the entire dinner bill, a metaphorical touchdown. I would have been mortified to ask for free dessert. Add to that the possibility of offending the manager and the idea becomes terrifying. Dan saw no liability. To the contrary, he recognized the manager’s presence as a sign that this place of business wanted to offer some form of tribute. If not dry cleaning, why not dessert? He and the manager understood each other. It was business.

Like most people, I’ve heard the arguments for putting business people in political office. Regardless of the reason why, I’ve always responded that I believe a business person will fail because business people are trained to turn a profit, and politics – government – never turns a profit. Turns out I was wrong about that. But business and politics are different worlds, with different languages, cultures, practices, and norms. This makes for yet another reason as to why the current occupant of the Oval Office is not qualified for the job, but that’s not my point. My point is that Mr. Trump really doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with what he did – er, does.
    I can easily imagine a dinner, not in Orange County, California, but in Washington, D.C., at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Having dined on cremated rib-eye, smothered in ketchup, the host turns to his satiated guest, a Mr. Comey, and says, “You know, Jim, as I’m giving you free dessert, I hope you can drop this Russia thing.”
    To the person making this proposal, it isn’t rude or inappropriate, it’s business. He’s done the same sort of thing hundreds of times before, because it’s just business. Except that it’s not.

Copyright © 2017 by James Knudsen


  1. It doesn't look like it is getting any better.

  2. This is awesome James. I think you've hit the nail on the (blond) head. I always like your column. Eric