J. Allen Easley, longtime faculty member in the religion department at Wake Forest University, died in 1992, a few weeks beyond his 99th birthday.
In one of our conversations about life in the “old days” — he graduated from Furman University in 1914 — Dr. Easley introduced me to a term I had not heard, largely because the culture that produced it doesn’t exist anymore.
When a mom and dad packed the children into the two-seater carriage for an outing in the horse and buggy days, the family dog often got in front and with great enthusiasm led the coach down the driveway. But when the carriage got to the street, the dog was faced with a dilemma: Will the coach turn right or left? If it guessed wrong — if the dog went right and the buggy went left, for example — the dog would have to hurry past the buggy to get back in front.
That experience, which Dr. Easley assured me was common at the turn of the 20th century in South Carolina, where he was raised, gave rise to the term “coach dog.”
“A coach dog,” Dr. Easley said, “was a politician who followed in front.”
An overly generous interpretation of “a politician who follows in front” would be that elected officials should reflect the will and desires of their constituents. They should lead by following the people they represent.
A more cynical view would be a politician holding his or her finger in the air to see which way the wind is playing.
Then there’s Donald Trump, who gives a whole new meaning to following in front.
On April 13, after spending weeks resisting the call to declare a national stay-at-home order, arguing that was the states’ responsibility, Trump announced that he, not governors, would determine when America would be reopened.
Turning to his bully Twitter feed, Trump claimed, “For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect.”
“When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at the White House coronavirus task force’s daily news briefing. “And the governors know that.”
“They can’t do anything without approval of the president of the United States,” Trump said.
Blowback was swift and strong, from some legal scholars, who argued that a president does not have the authority to reverse state and local advisories and orders, but also from governors, some of whom had already begun making plans to reopen the economies in their states, which they had closed because Trump had said it was their job to do so.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, led the resistance. “We don’t have King Trump, we have President Trump,” he said at his daily press briefing. In an interview on MSNBC Cuomo said, “If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn’t do it.”
Trump seemed to revel in the conflict. “A good old-fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain,” he tweeted.
A day later Trump walked back his rash proclamation of presidential omnipotence.
In a news conference in the Rose Garden he said, “I will be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state in a time and a manner as most appropriate.”
While maintaining his “total” power as president, Trump magnanimously gave the governors permission to do what some of them had insisted was within their power all along and what some of them were going to do anyway.
Trump’s proclamation of executive power turned into a clear show of weakness. But make no mistake, it was a shrew tactical move. An NPR analyst said, the president “is now set up, politically, to take the credit if all goes well and to blame the governors if something goes wrong.”
At one of Trump’s daily briefings a reporter said that someone had suggested a tickertape parade “when this is all over.” Not surprisingly, Trump said he liked the idea. You can bet he would relish leading the parade, once again following in front.