This month, as former members of his campaign and administration were being processed by our criminal justice system, President Donald Trump addressed the 270th graduating class of the FBI National Academy, a prestigious 11-week course for U.S. and international law enforcement professionals.
Often, a commencement address provides graduates with a final lesson, and Mr. Trump gave his: To laughter from the crowd, he derided our immigration system — railing on the diversity visa lottery — and scolded the “fake news" media.
He stoked grievances among those whom we trust, if necessary, to wield deadly force against the citizenry. He told the badge-wielding graduates they are under-supported and under-respected by the public. And, he made a pledge: No matter what happens, no one will be more loyal to them than he will.
Now, those graduates have returned home to their communities, here and abroad, with Mr. Trump’s authoritarian lessons fresh in their minds.
Someday, the Trump presidency will be over, and I’ve been thinking about what our national restoration will look like: the moment when we will have the opportunity to restore reverence for the rule of law and humility in the exercise of power.
An address to the 100th graduation of the FBI National Academy, given in 1975 by Attorney General Edward H. Levi, gives us a sense of what that restoration might sound like.
After the resignation of Richard Nixon, President Ford not only reminded the nation that “our long national nightmare” was over, but also that “our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.” In the wake of Watergate and the FBI’s abusive domestic security operations, it was the most critical guarantee that Ford had to make to the American people.
Ed Levi’s appointment as attorney general was, itself, a promise kept.
Today, Levi is cited as the “model of a modern attorney general.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that he brought “a rare intellectuality” and a “level of integrity” that placed his honesty beyond doubt.
Levi spent the Nixon administration as president of the University of Chicago, where he imperfectly but judiciously guided the school through the injustice and unrest of the 1960s. President Ford nominated Levi because, after the tumult of Watergate, he believed that it was important to nominate someone “nonpolitical,” with a “superior intellect.”
When Levi addressed the graduates of the FBI National Academy, crime was on the rise. In his otherwise temperate address, you can still see a rising national passion for deterrence and swift punishment that would soon help underwrite the enormity of mass incarceration in America. However, the rest of Levi’s address is remarkable and speaks to the best traditions of our republic.
On that morning in 1975, Levi told the graduates he did not intend to lecture them but to talk with them “about some of the problems we face together in enforcing the law and administering justice.”
As chief law enforcement officer, Levi reminded the graduates that their most profound burden is to lead by example: Everything they do influences the extent to which Americans follow the law and understand “what laws are to be enforced, what determination we have, what kindnesses and decencies that we honor as a people.”
While Mr. Trump reminded the recent FBI graduates of their strength, skill and pride, Levi encouraged humility in those who embody the power of the state, telling his 1975 audience that they would be empowered by their “gentleness, civility and determination,” which could “build or reinforce a basic trust in how our system of law operates.”
Levi didn’t minimize the responsibilities and challenges of law enforcement. After the injustice and unrest of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he recognized that the graduates stood “where fear and cynicism now meet,” but he reminded them that “there is also a great trust waiting to be reawakened.”
Today’s graduates stand at the intersection of a different type of fear and cynicism: Mr. Trump’s. Although, he pledged his superlative loyalty to law enforcement during his address, earlier that morning, President Trump attempted to undermine the FBI, suggesting without valid evidence that the bureau had earned shame and disgrace while investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Levi’s post-Watergate words give us a sense of what our national restoration post-Trump could be. But it will be up to us to determine what parts of our character will be rehabilitated and what will remain forsaken.
Rob Cuthbert is a writer and Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.