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The Briefing: Presidents doing crazy things? Sometimes it works

WASHINGTON – So it seems that the Very Stable Genius may soon meet the Little Rocket Man, and if this sounds crazy to you, take heart in the fact that presidents have on occasion made history when doing things that looked, at first, to be unfathomable.

Of course, in the reality show that is the Trump presidency, there's no guarantee that President Trump will ever sit down with North Korean strongman Kim Jung Un. Perhaps Trump's proposal to do so is nothing more than more bluster in a presidency where bluster is in no short supply.

But let's presume the curiously coiffed commander-in-chief actually meets the curiously coiffed communist. What's the worst thing that can happen?

Let's not think about that, at least not for now. Instead, let's reflect on other moments when presidents did the unexpected – and how it turned out:

Nixon goes to China: No one did Cold War tub-thumping quite like Richard Milhous Nixon – senator, vice president, president and disgraced president.

In speeches, interviews and essays over the course of a quarter century, Nixon laced into Communism time and again with an aggrieved eloquence.

"Communism denies God, enslaves men, and destroys justice," he wrote in 1960.

"The cold war isn't thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn't sleeping; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting," Nixon – who knew more than a little about plotting, scheming, working and fighting – said four years later.

You get the idea.

Then all of a sudden in 1971, Nixon shelved the red-baiting rhetoric and quietly began planning an election-year trip to China to meet communist dictator Mao Zedong. In doing so, he accomplished a lot. He stabilized an important binational relationship that had been nonexistent for a quarter century and helped pave the way for China's entry into the modern world.

Of course, not everything crazy that Nixon did turned out well (see Watergate).

But the idea of an anti-communist making nice with the communists has turned the phrase "like Nixon going to China" into a bit of a cliché that happens to be true, which says that presidents can accomplish a lot through a political about-face if they have earned the political capital to do so.

Reagan does detente: In the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan proved to be Nixon's rhetorical heir, taking on communism with an actor's flair for memorable lines.

The Soviet Union was "an evil empire," the 40th president said in 1983.

Then, in Berlin in 1987, with the wall dividing the communist and free parts of the city behind him, Reagan addressed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, saying: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

You know what happened next. Crushed under the weight of an American defense buildup it couldn't match, Gorbachev struck an arms deal with Reagan. And two years later, the Soviet Union's satellite states rebelled and the Berlin Wall came crashing down, paving the way for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Now not every seemingly crazy thing Reagan did worked out so well (see Iran-Contra).

But historian Michael Beschloss told the New York Times that Reagan deserves at least some of the credit for the end of the Cold War.

"With Reagan," Beschloss said, "the Soviets could no longer con themselves into thinking they would prevail in the Cold War because the American people had lost their will and strength and lost their taste for confronting Soviet aggression. They were sufficiently convinced that Reagan meant business."

Clinton and welfare reform. Elected in 1992 in part by campaigning against "the forces of greed," Bill Clinton left the White House eight years later as the president who made welfare recipients work.

Many of Clinton's fellow Democrats were furious at him for it, but Clinton's embrace of welfare reform remains a key part of his legacy.

And of course, if Trump really does pull off a diplomatic coup with North Korea's dictator, that will be an important part of his legacy, too.

But it won't be the only one.

Remember that Clinton is also remembered for another seemingly crazy thing he did (see Monica Lewinsky affair).

Happening today

President Trump hosts the World Series-winning Houston Astros at the White House ... Vice President Mike Pence travels to New York for a fundraiser for the Great America Committee, a pro-Trump PAC ... The Senate resumes consideration of a bill that partially repeals the Dodd-Frank banking reforms enacted amid the Great Recession ... The National Academies of Science release their periodic update on climate change.

Good reads

Vladimir Putin's weird interview with NBC News has a lot of people talking in D.C. this Monday morning ... A Buzzfeed scoop tells us that Trump's lawyers may try to block the airing of a "60 Minutes" interview with Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims to have had an affair with Trump more than a decade ago ... The New Yorker offers an in-depth profile of Christopher Steele, the former British spy behind the infamous "Trump dossier" ... In the New York Times, academics take a look at the missing Obama voters who helped doom Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency ... And Politico notes that Congress seems to suffer from attention-deficit disorder.

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