Viewpoints

Flattery got Ronny Jackson only so far

It’s hard to argue that any one Cabinet member or nominee tells the Donald Trump story better than another, but I’m tempted to say exactly that about Ronny Jackson, the president’s hasty, irresponsible and – the way things are looking now – doomed choice to lead the Veterans Affairs Department.

 
Opinion

Granted, Jackson doesn’t embody the administration’s venality. The crown for that goes to Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and it glitters with discounted jewels from lobbyists and businesspeople with no agenda – none! – beyond tribute to such a distinguished public servant.

Nor does Jackson, who currently serves as the White House physician, spout the most fantastical gibberish. His onetime claim that Trump’s constitution is that of a superman who might live to 200 doesn’t rise to the level of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visions of schoolyard grizzlies, because Jackson didconcede that Trump had probably squandered such longevity with too many fries and too little fiber.

But Jackson’s selection tidily reflects many of Trump’s most distinctive traits and disturbing tropisms: his obsession with looks; his disregard for relevant experience; his indulgence of decisions that make him feel good in the instant, consequences be damned; and above all, his itch to marinate in as much flattery as possible.

Remember the news conference last January when Jackson applied the marinade? He left Trump sopping wet. He was relaying the results of a recent examination of the president, and in the process made clear that there’s an error on his résumé where his specialty is listed as emergency medicine. It should say extreme sycophancy.

Nine times he trotted out “excellent” to describe various aspects of Trump’s health. When “excellent” needed a breather, “incredible” subbed, as in, “He has incredible genes.”

“It’s just the way God made him,” Jackson volunteered, divining clearer evidence of divine munificence in Trump than some 60 percent of the American public does. We should have recognized Jackson’s obsequious aria for what it was: an audition for a promotion.

Trump heard the siren’s song, and last month, when he fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, he announced his intention to put Jackson in the job. But that resolve wavered on Tuesday, following reports that members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee were investigating claims that Jackson drank excessively and allowed the overprescribing of drugs.

Trump told reporters he would stand behind Jackson, calling him “one of the finest people that I have met.” But he also said that if he were Jackson, he’d bail. It wasn’t an exhortation to go away, but it sure did seem like an invitation.

What an unnecessary but characteristic mess. From the start Trump’s pick of Jackson befuddled lawmakers, who observed that Jackson would, with limited managerial experience, be expected to run a federal agency with 360,000 employees and a $186 billion annual budget.

The president obviously did no meaningful vetting of Jackson. And thus he demonstrated anew the discernment that was surely on Republican strategist Steve Schmidt’s mind when he recently offered this assessment on MSNBC: “From a personnel perspective, we’ve never quite seen the assemblage of crooks, just outright weirdos, wife beaters, drunk drivers, complete and total incompetents that’s been assembled.”

There’s draining the swamp, there’s disrupting the status quo, and then there’s simply being lazy and perverse. The last characterizes Trump’s approach to government. He has somehow convinced himself that unconventional CVs are bold choices, when often they’re just reckless gambles. He has told himself that the shallow, evaporating pool of people keen to work for him are fearless visionaries, when sometimes they’re just feckless vagabonds.

And he has decided that the historically furious turnover of high-level administration employees and their epically embarrassing conduct are no cause for a cautious tack. If he likes someone – and, more to the point, if that someone likes him – it’s full steam ahead, straight into the iceberg.

The way that Jackson likes him is key to this evolving disaster. He didn’t offer general praise about Trump as a leader. He offered specific praise about Trump as a physical specimen, using the very yardstick that the president vacuously favors.

Remember that Trump toyed with Mitt Romney as secretary of state because he looked the part. Trump hesitated about John Bolton as national security adviser because of that hedge between his obscured upper lip and nose. Many of the derogative nicknames the president reportedly assigns people are appearance-based: Mr. Magoo for Jeff Sessions, Mr. Peepers for Rod Rosenstein.

So when Jackson, dressed in his uniform as a Navy rear admiral, cast Trump as some pulchritudinous Captain America, the president had all the validation that he could ever want, and all the motivation that he would ever need to lift Jackson up.

Pity that all that fawning may go to waste.

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