Harry Kellar, the magician most admired by Harry Houdini, was so adept at misdirection that he once boasted that “a brass band playing at full blast can march openly across the stage behind me, followed by a herd of elephants, yet no one will realize that they went by.”
Politics and magic have a lot in common.
I should know. My mother’s grandfather, a man named William W. Durbin, was the first elected president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and Franklin Roosevelt’s register of the Treasury. Roosevelt named Durbin to the number two spot in the Treasury (at the time he was in charge of the national debt) in gratitude for Durbin’s help in securing the Ohio delegation for FDR at the Democratic National Convention in 1932, when FDR was first nominated for president.
Because of his love of magic from the time he was a boy, W. W. Durbin was good friends with Harry Kellar, and the other great magical lights — wizards like Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone, and even Harry Houdini. Magic was Durbin’s hobby; politics was his passion.
So it is not hard for me to see that the art of misdirection is as old a technique in prestidigitation as it is in politics.
In this realm, Donald Trump bows to no one.
Trump has found his own magic wand that allows him to divert attention — it is his Twitter account. With a few taps on his smartphone, the subject is instantly changed. Presto! Harry Potter would be envious.
Of course the most dramatic examples of this wizardry are the March 4 tweets alleging that President Obama “wiretapped” him and Trump Tower. Remember? “How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Was the President trying to change the subject? The storm over the revelation that Jeff Sessions fibbed in his confirmation hearing about contacts with the Russians was in high gear when the March 4 tweets were sent out. If the intent was to “knock down” a story that had legs, the president arguably succeeded. You don’t hear to much chatter about the AG resigning these days.
But was there more? Was there the figurative “brass band or herd of elephants” marching behind these tweets? Did the president want to sidetrack the deeper question of the potential collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russians hacking into the emails of the Democratic National Committee?
One clue may lie in history. History does repeat itself, doesn’t it? Or perhaps better said: people with certain personalities act in fairly predictable ways when faced with negative news.
In either event, Richard Nixon, who Trump gave prominence to in his tweet, provides some guidance. There has been a good deal of ink spilled recently on comparisons between Trump and Nixon — some accurate, some not. The two are remarkably different men, but they do share characteristics that may account for the “echoes” of Watergate that John Dean says he hears in current events.
In my next post, I will replay in detail the discussions in the Oval Office on January 8, 1973, when President Nixon rummaged around about a rumor that Lyndon Johnson had wiretapped his campaign plane during the 1968 campaign. Nixon’s purpose — to distract attention from the growing Watergate scandal.
James D. Robenalt, is the author of Linking Rings, William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America and January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever. He lectures with John W. Dean, Nixon’s former White House Counsel, on Watergate and legal ethics. www.watergatecle.com