A Petty Politicization of the Presidency

During his trip to Japan in late May, US President Donald Trump handed a trophy to the winner of a grand tournament in sumo and met the new emperor, Naruhito. The most newsworthy event, however, occurred when Trump visited the Yokosuka Naval Base where the U.S.S. John McCain was stationed. Hours after his tour and speech, major news outlets reported that the White House directed the Navy to hide the ship bearing the name of Trump’s deceased adversary.

Administration officials justified the move on the grounds “of bad visuals—the name of the president’s nemesis clearly visible in photographs of him.” Initially, the Navy complied by placing a tarp over McCain’s name on the ship. When higher-ranking officers heard of the plan, they removed the tarp and moved the barge before Trump’s visit. Furthermore, sailors aboard the McCain were given the day off and were not invited to hear Trump’s speech on the U.S.S. Wasp. When certain crewmembers from the McCain showed up to hear the speech anyway, they were prevented from entering—presumably because McCain’s name was still embroidered on their uniforms.

Nonpartisan military leaders and Democratic politicians have been in uproar at an attempt to disparage a Vietnam War hero and politicize the military. Some called it unprecedented. But was it? One only needs to reflect on a previously paranoid and petty predecessor to find a similar example of a president trying to dismiss his foes.

On February 6, 1969, Nixon held his second presidential press conference where he announced an eight-day trip to Europe at the end of the month. Visiting London, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and Bonn, Nixon saw the trip as a way “to underline my commitment to the closest relationship between our friends in Western Europe and the United States.” When preparing a draft for Nixon’s arrival statement in London, his speechwriter, William Safire, included a description of Nixon’s first visit to Europe as Vice President in 1958. In the press release, there was a reference to Nixon accompanying Queen Elizabeth II to the dedication of an American chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the choir was “slowly singing the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’” When Nixon read the statement, he told Safire not to mention that detail in the statement, “sort of growling in his deepest baritone, ‘That’s a Kennedy song.’” RFK, not JFK, that is.

The Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had been a favorite of Robert Kennedy’s. He was not strongly associated with the song, however, until his death. During his funeral, on June 8, 1968, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Andy Williams concluded the service by singing the anthem. After the first verse, those in the pews joined him. On June 16, The Boston Globe’s Ernie Santosuosso reported that although it seemed like “[n]o time for music” but rather a time “for pause,” when “Williams’ voice swept out over 2000 heads in the cathedral in a song even more familiar than our nation’s anthem, it served as an ablution for despair.”

As the funeral train traveled south from New York to Washington, D.C., mourners who had gathered alongside the train tracks sang the historic song as the procession passed by. In Baltimore, a crowd numbering 10,000, that “had been waiting for hours…spontaneously sent up stirringly in this ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’” when the train arrived at the station.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and its connection to RFK resurfaced two months later. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, considered “the most violent convention in [the Democrats’] history,” all the delegates “paused” to remember RFK’s death. On August 30, Russell Baker of the New York Times reported that for half-an-hour the delegates “sat in the closest approximation to respectful silence they had managed all week” listening to the last surviving Kennedy brother, Teddy, and watching a memorial film about RFK. After the video, every delegate rose for a five-minute standing ovation. Yet “this momentary glimpse of harmony induced by the memory of death” unraveled into “another display of tension” when chairman Carl Albert wanted to restore order and proceed with the convention’s business. Delegates primarily from New York and California wanted to continue the demonstration for RFK and responded to Albert’s protests by singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Like the ovation, the song was “taken up all around the floor and through three sides of the four-sided gallery in a thunder of handclapping and foot-stomping that drowned out” Albert’s furious gavel. It lasted for 20 minutes until Mayor Daley’s supporters shouted down the Kennedy supporters.

With his vehement dislike for the Kennedys—especially RFK—Nixon could not stand being associated with an American anthem that had been sung during the passing of a political foe. Even though Trump did not specifically order the removal of the U.S.S. John McCain, he said the White House staffers who made the decision were “well-meaning.” Additionally, White House staff believed Trump would be upset if he was pictured in front of a ship commemorating his foe. While an anthem is different from a destroyer, both Nixon and Trump politicized typically apolitical military features.

The pettiness is surely disturbing, but it is not new.

Things may change for the better, though. The day after his second inauguration, Nixon invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for a worship service at the White House. What did he ask them to sing? You guessed it: “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” If Trump wins a second term, perhaps he will give a speech on the U.S.S. John McCain the next time he visits East Asia? Then again, that seems to be a pretty poor reason for reelection.