During the first holiday season of the Trump interregnum, the White House made brief use of the humble manual that Charles Dickens penned 175 years ago on how to “keep Christmas well.”
Unfortunately, the Trumps missed the point of A Christmas Carol.
As the Washington Post report from last year’s Christmastide noted:
The president who boasts of having no time to read books has found a way to make use of them (the green ones, anyway): turn them into a very large holiday decoration. Photos of the White House library decked out for the holidays show an unusual selection of (mostly green) books organized into the shape of a Christmas tree.… The books were purchased especially for their decorative value, “based on their varieties of green color tones,” according to Stephanie Grisham, director of communications for first lady Melania Trump. “The concept for the color of the room was red and green, hence the green books and red ribbons.” This palette is meant “to highlight FDR’s personal copy of A Christmas Carol, which is bound in red leather and loaned from the FDR presidential library in Hyde Park, New York,” she added.
That pretty much sums up the difference between the Trump White House and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House. While the Trump’s choose books based on the color of their covers, FDR chose them for the lessons they could teach.
Each Christmas Eve in the 1930s and 1940s, President Roosevelt delivered a radio address to the people of the United States.
For the 32nd president, the annual talks represented an opportunity to mark the holiday. But Roosevelt also used them to speak about the advance of economic and social justice. This, he argued, was cause for celebration, and for a renewed commitment to do even more in the year to come.
Roosevelt read to his listeners from the Bible and newspaper columns and, invariably, from the red-leather-bound edition of A Christmas Carol. In the transformation of Scrooge from a lonely miser to a generous donor to his community, the president found a call to contemporary action.
“A Christmas rite for me is always to reread that immortal little story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Reading between the lines and thinking as I always do of Bob Cratchit’s humble home as a counterpart of millions of our own American homes, the story takes on a stirring significance to me,” Roosevelt recalled in his 1939 address. “Old Scrooge found that Christmas wasn’t a humbug. He took to himself the spirit of neighborliness. But today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to state and now at last to the whole nation.”
“For instance,” Roosevelt marveled, as he spoke just days before the first Social Security checks would be dispatched, “who a generation ago would have thought that a week from tomorrow—January 1, 1940—tens of thousands of elderly men and women in every state and every county and every city of the nation would begin to receive checks every month for old age retirement insurance—and not only that but that there would be also insurance benefits for the wife, the widow, the orphan children and even dependent parents? Who would have thought a generation ago that people who lost their jobs would, for an appreciable period, receive unemployment insurance—that the needy, the blind and the crippled children would receive some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes’?”
In 2018, that measure of protection was threatened by the shutdown chaos and austerity schemes of Donald Trump and his congressional allies.
Desperate to find money to fund their tax breaks for their wealthy campaign donors, these modern-day Scrooges are more than willing to shred the safety net in order to achieve their ends. Senate majority leader McConnell was rather too blunt about the plan just shortly before the 2018 midterm election, when he claimed in a Bloomberg News interview that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other so-called “entitlement programs” are “the real drivers of the debt.” Ominously, McConnell proposed to “adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”
The majority leader was peddling his usual blend of outright lying and subtle deception. He was blaming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for running up the debt, when in reality it was his Republican Party that as Bloomberg noted, “passed a tax cut projected to add more than $1 trillion to the debt.”
Instead of admitting that he and Trump—along with their errand boy, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan—had created a whole new debt crisis, McConnell was proposing the usual response of economic and political elites: a scheme to make working families and retirees pay for the greed of the corporate CEOs and investment bankers.
This is just the sort of avarice that inspired Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol, and that inspired Franklin Roosevelt to put the book to its very best use: not as a prop for a holiday display but as a gentle reminder of the timeless necessity of “a neighborliness that spreads its boundaries—from town, to county, to state and now at last to the whole nation.”