The American Way?

Toby Keith, center, performs "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" at the 37th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards Wedne
Toby Keith, center, performs "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" at the 37th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards Wednesday, May 22, 2002, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

A few months after the 9/11 tragedy, country music star giant Toby Keith released a stirring, patriotic song called, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)". The music is upbeat, catchy, and the theme is undeniably patriotic, with the Statue of Liberty "shakin' her fist" at all of our enemies who've sucker punched us in the back. Revenge is sweet and severe: it "feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you." But then, near the end of the song, Keith grinds out this choice little sentiment which has always struck me as needlessly crude and undermining his message and the earlier imagery of freedom and liberty: "We'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way!"

Really? Is that how Americans typically respond to attacks against us? Is that how we want the rest of the world to see us?

The nation was understandably still in shock and anger over the September 11 attacks, and Keith was trying to capture the emotion and resentment associated with that tragedy, but every time I hear those lyrics, I wince. Mind you, I am a lifelong student of the Sixteenth Century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. I read "The Prince" in my early-teens and thereafter have always appreciated the creative -- but not the crude -- use of fear as an incentive to achieve political ends.

Contrast "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" with another memorable patriotic country song, Lee Greenwood's 1984 classic, "God Bless the USA". Appearing during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, Greenwood's song was performed at that year's GOP convention with Reagan and his wife, Nancy, in attendance. For many, the song's sunny optimism captured Reagan's re-election message of "Morning in America." Reagan's critics dismissed the theme as shallow and "gauzy," but it nonetheless convinced American voters who gave him a landslide win over former Vice President Walter Mondale. Reagan carried 49 states with 58.8% of the votes cast and captured 525 out of the 538 Electoral College votes. Mondale won his home state, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia to receive 13 electoral votes.

Greenwood sings: "I'm proud to be an American/Where at least I know I'm free," and the only reference to a body part is to "pride in every American heart." The song was enormously popular and had a reprise in 1990 and 1991, when it was played to lift military morale during the first Persian Gulf War. To this day, I think of this song as the unofficial Ronald Reagan theme song. It still works.

The difference between Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood also strikes me as the difference today between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. This difference goes well beyond hairstyles. The former is all fury, bombast, and narcissism; the latter projected controlled strength accompanied by grace and patriotism.

Lou Cannon, Reagan's early biographer, tells the story of Reagan running for Governor of California, and shaking hands along a rope-line. A young boy is holding up a poster from one of Reagan's earlier movies, "Bedtime for Bonzo," in which Reagan's co-star was a chimpanzee. The boy asks Reagan to sign his poster. Reagan obliges, takes out his pen, and signs his name, beneath which he writes, in parentheses, "I'm the one wearing the watch." Can you imagine Donald Trump doing this?

Among Reagan's many communications skills, modesty and self-deprecating humor contributed to his political success. He never took himself too seriously. Reagan may have gone after "welfare queens" and the "Evil Empire," but he never, to my knowledge, insulted an entire nation (especially a neighbor and close trading partner) by calling its citizens rapists. Reagan could, however, at times, be prickly; he was no pushover. There was that 1980 New Hampshire debate where there was an on-stage dust-up with George H.W. Bush as the event was about to begin. Reagan had agreed to fund the debate, and when a skirmish over who could attend broke out, the editor of the "Nashua Telegraph" ordered the microphone muted. Reagan promptly shot back, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green."

It was never all about Reagan; it was about where he wanted to lead America. It is always about Donald Trump. Braggadocio can make us feel good. It is, for a while, entertaining, perhaps even gratifying. But in the end, it almost always rings hollow. The presidency is more about temperament than hormones.

Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh posits that Trump's appeal to many Americans may stem from their sense of feeling "angry, frustrated, and fearful." Right track/wrong track polling supports the view that the public is not happy with the country's direction, and there are interesting parallels between the 1979-1980 presidential election cycle and the present 2015-2016 cycle. One fascinating common denominator is the importance played by Iran-U.S. relations in each period.

We may not end up with another Reagan-like sunny optimist; those leaders are extremely rare, indeed. But it is highly unlikely that Donald Trump's payback persona will wear well over the long run. Americans are optimistic, pragmatic, get-it-done people. At times we may feel frustrated, may carry a grudge, and may even feel like punching out somebody. Yet, for the most part, our responses are measured, tempered, and thoughtful. When attacked, of course, we fight back - but on our terms, not the enemy's. Even when provoked, somewhere in our souls are to be found what a great American wartime president once called, in the last words of his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, "the better angels of our nature." That's the real American way.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.