Washington in the summer is a never-ending stream of tour groups and packs of students, here to swarm the monuments, stroll the National Mall, and learn about our nation's history and government.
In the heat of the summer of 2001, I was part of one of those groups, the American Legion Auxiliary's "Girls Nation." For one week, a hundred of us high school girls came to D.C. to pretend that we were running the government. We visited the White House, met with President George W. Bush, and halfway through the week, we elected a president of our own from our ranks, and she – being a young woman from the state of Arizona – was "sworn in" by a Congressman from her home state, then-Rep. Jeff Flake.
Two very separate but nonetheless related events in the last week have brought me back to that experience sixteen years ago.
First, there was President Trump addressing the participants of this year's Boys and Girls Nation class, just as presidents have done for decades.
With the speech coming just days after the President caused controversy with his campaign-style remarks at the national Boy Scout Jamboree, I tuned into the livestream, curious and holding my breath. As the remarks began, they seemed quite on the right track: optimistic, upbeat, extolling American greatness and the spirit of our nation's people. When President Trump gave an across-the-aisle nod to perhaps the most famous alumnus of the program, Bill Clinton, I held my breath until it was clear, blessedly, there'd not be a peep about "missing emails," or anything more sordid.
But then, as I feared, it came, the off-note I'd been dreading. It wasn't a glaring, made-for-cable outrageous moment, but it unsettled me all the same.
"Just think of the amazing moments in history you will witness during your lifetime," Trump said to the assembled teens. "Well, you saw one on Nov. 8, right? That was a pretty amazing moment ..."
Suddenly, it about him: his greatness, his election victory. And what a shame. Most presidents aim to eschew politics in this sort of setting; there are likely students in that group for whom Nov. 8 did not feel like that amazing a day. Yet even after being chastened for the Jamboree mess, Trump couldn't help himself.
It may seem like extreme nitpicking to zero in on one, probably unscripted, line in an otherwise standard, quite lovely little speech. But I couldn't shake it. I tried to see it through the eyes of young people there. Is this what a new generation of leaders will grow up and think of as normal? When they are leading the nation — and just as the millennials are now the largest bloc of eligible voters, these "Gen Z" post-millennials will begin entering the electorate during the midterms and will be elected to Congress themselves before you know it — will they emulate what they are seeing today?
This sort of concern, among others, is surfaced loud and clear by now-Sen. Jeff Flake in Conscience of a Conservative, his book explaining his frustrations and fears about the damage the Trump presidency is doing to America. In an excerpt released last week, Flake bemoans not just the policy areas where Trump has diverged from the usual party line, but the demeanor and tone Trump has brought to the presidency, and the way in which too many conservatives have sat silent in the face of a president who, especially temperamentally, is anything but.
The announcement that the book existed came as a surprise to many, even reportedly to Flake's own staff, who were kept in the dark so that they would not be able to attempt to talk their boss out of putting a major target on his own back.
And target he now is. Pro-Trump voices like former Gov. Mike Huckabee, hardly a true limited-government champion, have pounced on Flake as a "globalist," the insult-du-jour in a party where many have forgotten why they so recently supported free trade and American global leadership. And of course, the Left has come at Flake for being insufficiently courageous in opposing Trump, despite the fact that it is Flake, not liberal activists and pundits, who has something to lose by making his voice heard.
(This is to say nothing of the silliness of those who claim Flake cannot properly oppose Trump while "voting with him 95 percent of the time, given that a large number of the "votes" used in these calculation are things like Senate confirmations of fairly conventional, uncontroversial appointees.)
The fact of Flake being up for re-election in a red, pro-Trump state in 2018 sets this book apart from the calls of the Evan McMullins of the world; what Flake has done can be rightly called brave in a way many "#Resistance" voices cannot, because there are actual risks, actual stakes for Flake in what he has done.
Like I did over a decade and a half ago, some bright, earnest "Gen Z"-ers today are looking at our nation's leaders for guidance on how to act. I continue to hope against all odds that this president can become someone who can offer that guidance, that example. But failing that, Sen. Flake – saying what he knows to be right, no matter the cost – offers a worthy lesson of his own.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for The Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."