Man Meets Moment – Adam Schiff, the anti-Trump

When the history of the current impeachment process is written, only a few even of those most heavily involved will be remembered. President Donald Trump, of course. And, of course, Speak of the House, Nancy Pelosi. And now, as anyone paying attention knows, Congressman Adam Schiff.

Schiff has taken the lead in presenting the case for impeaching the president to the Senate, whose members constitute the jury. Schiff’s contributions have been various. Most importantly, first as leader of the House managers he has been fastidious in making what is widely agreed an extremely strong case; second as presenter, as orator, he himself he has been extraordinary effective. His content sometimes sung, and his delivery generally was impeccable. There were of course some naysayers, some who insisted that Schiff was playing more to the cameras than to the people. But overwhelmingly his reviews were unusually strong, words like “dazzling” and “brilliant” and “tour de force” tripping off the tongue of many close observers.   

Trump has a nickname for Schiff – in fact he has two. The president refers to the Congressman from California as “Little Pencil Neck” or, more often, “Shifty Schiff.” (In a 2018 tweet, Trump also named him Little Adam Schitt – about which no further comment.) Trump is bothering insulting as Schiff has emerged from the impeachment process as Trump’s most formidable opponent. Which brings me to the point of this post – to retrieve from the past the psycho-historian.

When I was a graduate student at Yale in the 1970’s psychohistory was big. Erik Erikson especially – whose biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi were widely read and even revered – was a proponent of biographies that took account not only of the leader’s psychological development but of the way it mapped on to those of the led. In other words, Erikson’s explanation for why some leaders became great leaders was their singular capacity to reflect not only the temper of the time but the temper of the people.     

I am not arguing that Schiff will forever be remembered as a great leader. It is in any case too early to know his place in history. What I am suggesting is that this man in particular mapped on to this moment in particular. A moment most obviously characterized by coarseness and cynicism – and by followers who not only widely dislike their leaders but also widely distrust them. In 2019 less than 20% of Americans approved of the way Congress was doing its job.  

What then is it about Schiff that made him stand out? That made it possible for him to rise to the occasion – to meet the moment? Clearly there was as indicated the overarching importance of his near perfect performance. As a manager, as an orator, as a leader who freely drew on the glories, real and imagined, of America’s past to try to pull the people from what he depicted as their dismal present. To pull them toward a better future in which they, we, would be led by those who appealed to what Lincoln famously called the better angels of our nature.  

But in addition to Schiff’s political position was his personal impression. His presentation of self on a stage now better known for performances that are crude and rude than for those that are quiet and calm. To be sure, the content of what Schiff said was hardly meek or mild. But the way he said it was, well, maybe not meek, but certainly mild. One of the monikers that Trump bestowed – calling Schiff “little pencil-neck” – has a certain resonance because Schiff’s body reflects his history. He is atypically tall and lean, with an aura almost of an ascetic. No accident, as Schiff has not only run marathons he has participated in triathlons. He is, moreover, a vegan. Of how many other Senators can this be said?! Moreover, while he might carry a big stick, he speaks softly. He always speaks softly, never really raises his voice, though it does sometimes, when he is especially impassioned, take on a certain urgency. Still, Schiff’s presentation of self is nothing if not atypical: his silver tongue encased in a body that seems more suited to self-denial than to self-promotion.

How then does this man meet this moment?  By providing the American people with the obverse of their president.  Whereas one has been inexperienced and inexpert, the other is experienced and expert. Whereas one has been impetuous and impulsive, the other has been determined and deliberate. Whereas one has been intermittently sluggish and lazy, the other is as relentlessly hard-working as deeply committed. Whereas one has been proudly licentious, the other has been quietly conventional. Whereas one has flouted a long list of American norms, the other remains steeped in American ideas and ideals.  Whereas one has been a real estate developer and television personality the other is a lawyer who has spent most of his life in public service.

Donald Trump once sued comedian Bill Maher for calling him the son of an orangutan. Can you imagine Adam Schiff suing Donald Trump for calling him Little Pencil-Neck? Or for that matter Shifty Schiff? The fact that the former has better things to do than the latter is precisely why the former, Adam Schiff, has met this moment. As much as anyone else in American political life, he is the anti-Trump.

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