Like so many good stories, this is an old one. But if this April somehow does turn out to be “the cruelest month” politically, this old story could even be timely.
Here’s the story: The brutal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, realizing that his failing health meant that his days were numbered, summoned his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, to a very private meeting.
After telling Khrushchev what a lonely life it was at the top, Stalin confided: “I’m leaving two letters for you in the bottom drawer of my desk. These two letters contain the wisest counsel only I can give you. Do not open the first letter until the problems you face are so completely overwhelming that you really do not know what to do. The second letter should be opened only when everything has gone wrong, you have no idea what to do and you are in despair.”
Khrushchev took power and even had a brief political honeymoon. But then reality, in the form of a failed harvest and a bad economy, intruded. Khrushchev, knowing that his party rivals were conspiring against him, opened the bottom desk drawer and read the first letter. Its advice: “Blame everything on me. — Stalin.”
Khrushchev, in a major address to the Congress of the Communist Party, did exactly as directed. He blamed all of the Soviet Union’s problems on the grave mistakes of his predecessor.
Stalin was right. It worked for Khrushchev, whose popularity improved and for whom the pressure was relieved.
But Khrushchev’s recovery was short-lived, doomed by an agricultural blight, tensions with the Chinese and the global embarrassment following the Cuban missile crisis. He was drinking too much. He trusted no one. He could not sleep. In desperation, at 4 in the morning, Khrushchev went to the bottom desk drawer and opened the envelope with the second letter. It read: “Write two letters. — Stalin.”
Even the man’s most uncritical admirers would concede that President Donald Trump has read and completely followed the directions of the first letter. He has falsely blamed President Barack Obama, his White House predecessor, for having founded the Islamic State group, for “actively supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq” and for having permitted the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States to get to 30 million or 34 million.
Forget 75 consecutive months of job growth and an unemployment rate down from 10 percent to 4.7 percent; Trump has argued repeatedly that he “inherited a mess” from Obama and has charged that Obama has been personally responsible for the public protests in opposition to Trump administration policies.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is not a member of any Trump fan club, has a favorite expression for the sort of difficult problems the Republican president now faces: “You know what Chairman Mao said: ‘It’s always darkest just before it’s totally black.’”
The most recent Republican to occupy the Oval Office besides Trump, President George W. Bush, faced his own serious political challenges and declining popularity by quoting the counsel he received from his fellow Texan Bob Strauss, a leading Democrat: “Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.”
For Trump, absent both a major course correction and a personality overhaul, it could too soon be time to consider getting out the stationery and fountain pen and crafting a first draft of that second letter.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.