When the going gets tough, the tough go golfing.
Doubtless in years to come, every home in Puerto Rico will proudly display replicas of the golfing trophy President Trump dedicated to the brave citizens of the beleaguered island to memorialize Hurricane Maria.
Unless I miss my guess, donaldjtrump.com will soon be peddling them along with "Make America Great Again" T-shirts, ball caps, coffee mugs and engraved medals featuring the great man’s likeness.
The ball caps are $40, the medallions $45. So I’m guessing maybe $50 for the trophy.
OK, enough sarcasm. But can anybody point me to a more tone-deaf presidential gesture than Trump’s dedicating a golfing trophy to a desperate population he’d described as lazy ingrates begging for a government handout?
"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help," Trump tweeted. "They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
Coming from a guy who couldn’t change a flat tire without his chauffer, that’s pretty rich. But then it’s only when Trump evades his White House minders and holes up at one of his private country clubs that Americans get the full measure of their thin-skinned, boastful chief executive.
Basically that’s what happened during the long weekend after Category 5 Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, leaving behind a path of unimaginable, almost biblical destruction the president scarcely noticed. Instead of being on the job at the White House as the storm approached, Trump was sequestered at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golfing resort — too distracted conducting a Twitter war with NFL football players to grasp the enormity of what was taking place.
Partly, too, the cable TV news networks where Trump gets most of his information were a bit slow off the mark. Blame hurricane fatigue in the wake of Harvey and Irma. But whatever the reason, the president only got engaged after the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, made an impassioned plea on behalf of her devastated island.
Reacting to a comment by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that her agency’s efforts were a "good news story," Mayor Cruz, who had been wading through chest-deep water to reach stranded flood victims, got emotional. "This is not a ‘good news’ story," she told a CNN reporter. "This is a ‘people are dying’ story. It’s a life-or-death story."
Indeed, the scope of the destruction in Puerto Rico was so vast as to beggar imagination. There was no electrical power or clean water anywhere on the island. Hospitals had been shut down; fuel for generators was in short supply. Ports and airports had been rendered inoperable, roads blockaded, and telephone networks destroyed.
"The level of devastation and the impact on the first responders we closely work with was so great that those people were having to take care of their families and homes to an extent we don’t normally see," an anonymous FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) official told The Washington Post. The Puerto Rican government’s inability even to communicate with its own emergency workers was critical. The storm had essentially reduced the island’s 3.5 million citizens to a state of nature.
American citizens, let’s recall, every one.
"I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives," San Juan’s mayor said at a news conference a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall. "I am done being polite, I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell … We are dying here. If we don’t get the food and the water into the people’s hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide."
Trump, of course, took it personally. Because in his mind, everything in the world is about Donald J. Trump. "The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump," he wrote on Twitter.
Almost needless to say, there was no evidence of that, only Trump’s paranoia. Cruz hadn’t even mentioned his name. She had begged the President of the United States to understand the gravity of the humanitarian crisis Puerto Rico faced, and to respond.
Ultimately, despite the personal abuse and racial insinuations Trump heaped upon Puerto Rico’s victims, the mayor’s plea worked. The White House appointed Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan to command relief efforts, who told reporters that federal manpower on the island was insufficient to the crisis — not too surprising given how badly FEMA has been overstretched lately — and began to unravel the logistical nightmare Mayor Cruz complained of.
Again needless to say, the Golfer-in-Chief has begun taking bows. But if there’s a hero in this sad tale, it’s Carmen Yulin Cruz.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.