Last Call With Ron Stodghill: Searching for Wisdom
And finding perspective on 2016 in lessons from the past
A WEEK after the election, I walk into the office of Brian Jones, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Johnson C. Smith University, looking for solace. As scholars go, Dr. Jones is an earthy sort, a native Charlottean whose love for the academy is rivaled only by his obsession for the Panthers and craft beer. As an assistant professor at the university, I have grown to value Jones for his straight talk and listening ear. I also like that he’s a presidential historian with a knack for demystifying the crazy politics in our state and country in 2016.
On this morning, though, I discover Doc looking rather melancholy.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, glumly.
I surmise it may be dawning on him that his new look—a West Virginia mountain man style with puffy beard and spiky hair—is decidedly ill timed. After all, here he is, a 41-year-old white guy working at a historically black college, looking for all the world like a Trump rally organizer lost at a Black Lives Matter protest.
We’ve had many candid conversations over the years, but this time, as we sit, I bring out a recording device, thinking I might want to preserve these words of wisdom. For what seems like an eternity, though, we sit in silence.
“Look, I haven’t felt this bad since the Panthers melted down in the Super Bowl,” he says, finally, the blood drained from his face. “It was like everything we’d done in that 15-1 season suddenly went belly up. Now, it’s like everything that’s been done the previous eight years will be washed up.”
Listening, I envision Donald dabbing at Mar-a-Lago. I feel a headache coming on.
“Yeah, we’re screwed,” I say.
“Or maybe things will take the course of Andrew Jackson,” he says, slightly perky. “He started poorly and ended up on a 20-dollar bill.”
I transport myself back to eighth grade, to Sister Pat’s history class in Detroit. I recall this lesson: Andrew Jackson, a bootstrapping lawyer and War of 1812 hero, won the 1828 presidential election partly by extolling “common man” values and thumbing his nose at the establishment.
“Yeah, Jackson was feisty and fiery,” Dr. Jones says. “He had killed a man in a duel. He was considered uncouth, uncivilized, and barbaric. Yet he spoke to something inside men’s souls about what was coming and what needed to be done.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that Andrew Jackson was very different from the Virginia elite that preceded him in the presidency.”
“Donald Trump was born with his own silver spoon.”
“True, but let’s face it: it’s not like Hillary’s supporters believe she was denied a great presidency. What worries them is a reversal of changes that have taken place over the Obama years.”
Soon, I find myself almost arguing with him over an election in which we’d voted for the same person. What could be more 2016 than that?
“Donald Trump doesn’t like to read,” I say. “How can you run the country if you don’t read?”
“You’d be amazed at what our presidents get by knowing and not knowing,” Dr. Jones counters. “You know, when Eisenhower left the White House, he didn’t know anything about anything. The man didn’t even know how to place a phone call.”
“He didn’t understand how television worked, either. I mean, granted, it was the ’50s and Eisenhower had spent his life in the Army and in political office. But, yeah, he contacted his friend Bill Paley, the head of CBS, and asked him if he could solve a problem he was having with his TV. He didn’t understand the difference between the TV network and the TV manufacturer.”
“Okay, so that’s pretty dumb,” I say. “But heck, Donald Trump thinks he can make America great again by building a wall around it, which sounds pretty dumb, too.”
“Well, he’ll either get smart or end up like Ulysses Grant.”
“What happened to Grant?”
“So when Grant comes into the presidency, he’s got a wealth of Army experience and expects to run things like he did in the Army,” Dr. Jones says. “He appoints folks based on what the party machinery tells him. The problem is that when he starts giving orders like in the Army, nobody follows them. He ends up with a bunch of people around him that he really can’t trust. His presidency becomes mired in scandal and corruption.”
I suddenly regret stopping by Doc’s office. His stories unnerve me and fill me with a sense of hopelessness.
We shake hands and I walk outside. The autumn air is crisp. The leaves blaze orange. Students, dressed in sweaters and hats, move briskly across campus. As I head to class, one of my students rushes toward me looking positively giddy. “I read your critique, Professor, and rewrote my paper,” she gushes. “I can’t wait for you to read it—it’s sooo much better!” In that second, standing on this nearly 150-year-old historically black college, I realize I have no time to mope; too many people depend on me to continue to hold up my end of the bargain. President Obama called such epiphanies “teachable moments.”