Mark Shields: Discovering the lost art of letter writing

Mark Shields


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

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-Qaida in
Iraq” and for having permitted the number of undocumented immigrants in the
U.S. 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, 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, 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 President 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.

Web:  www.creators.com/author/mark-shields