Walking through the halls of the U.S. Capitol last week, I happened upon a young staffer who was unhappy with the latest GOP scandal. Being a staffer for a GOP senator, he said, “At least I got a good one. But our country is worse off than it’s ever been.” As the young man is only in his mid-twenties, I just smiled and said, “It’s actually been worse.”
When I think about how bad it can be or how bad it has been, I think of 1968. That year began with the Tet Offensive and scores of body bags in the news. Our television news shows, limited to three major networks, brought the blood and killing into our living rooms every night during dinnertime. The newspapers were filled with body counts, kill ratios and justifications for a war that was tearing us apart. To this day, the image of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, firing his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon street early in the Tet Offensive sits heavy on my mind. But that wasn’t the only public execution that year. In 1968, we also lost Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy to assassins.
The night Kennedy died, I watched it live on television with my parents. “Is there a doctor in the house?” I remember someone shouting over the public address system. Riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were televised, too. Daley’s cops bashed and beat protesters with clubs, a move approved by a majority of future Donald Trump voters and their parents.
The stain left by Nixon haunts us to this day, and it has led us directly to Trump.
So I cannot, in good conscience, agree that we are more divided, or live in more dangerous times, than we did 50 years ago, but I do recognize the current times as being oddly familiar. Richard Nixon barely won the 1968 presidential race but he did so with an act of treason: by convincing South Vietnam not to negotiate peace unless he was elected. It was that act of treason that led to another 15,000 young men dying before the war ended for us, about a year before Nixon’s presidency itself ended because of another treasonous act.
The stain left by Nixon haunts us to this day, and it has led us directly to Trump. This week Trump’s escapades reached a new, Nixonian level. On a two-week jaunt to the far east, including a visit to Vietnam (a country he couldn’t visit as a draft-age young man during the war because of bone spurs), China (apparently Trump and Nixon can go to China) and a visit with controversial Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, Trump refrained from a press briefing in China because the Chinese didn’t like the idea. He routinely limited press pool coverage and laughed with Duterte when the latter described members of the media as “the real spies.”
But that wasn’t the kicker. In a meeting reminiscent of a scene in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School, Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later, Trump told media that he asked Putin if the Russian had meddled in the 2016 election. Putin categorically denied it—"He seemed to get upset,” Trump said, acting just like Dean Martin (not that Dean Martin, but the character in Back to School).
The President of the United States said he believes Putin meant it when he denied meddling in our election. Trump then referred to our country’s own intelligence officers as “political hacks.“
While others frothed at the mouth over this potentially treasonous statement, I wondered whether anyone caught the logical implication of what had been said: If Putin denies meddling and our president believes him, then both men just exonerated Hillary Clinton and the Democrats from colluding with Russia during our elections—a central tenant to Trump’s pushback against the Mueller investigation. He always said the Democrats colluded. He can no longer defend that argument.
If Putin denies Russian meddling and our president believes him, then both men just exonerated Hillary Clinton.
I doubt this will stop him, or that Trump will be able to follow the logic, because his lies do not follow any form of logic. He simply makes up one story after another to cover his actions, to deflect and to deter anyone from following him anywhere.
"I just want to ask him if he knows his stories change so much,” veteran actor and comedian John Cleese told a Washington D.C. audience last week. In response to a question I asked him—“What is the one thing you’d like to ask Trump?”—Cleese laughed and said, “Most people are full of shit.” Cleese said Trump is prolific in the art form but may not actually be aware of how much he lies. “I really don’t think he does,” Cleese said with a smile that elicited cheers from fans.
Once you get past the comic implications of a president who often lies, who rarely seems presidential and who conducts national debate via Twitter, you come back to the very serious Nixonian acts Trump does not want to discuss. The latest includes George Papadopoulos, the young campaign worker who is now working with Robert Mueller and who once told Stephen Miller, a senior Trump campaign policy advisor, that he had received "interesting messages” from Moscow one day after he learned that Russia supposedly had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Why didn’t Miller or anyone else in the Trump campaign call the FBI and let them know that one of our most strident enemies was trying to compromise our election? This is a question Trump can neither dodge nor deflect. Papadopoulos has been painted as a “known liar” by Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House, but facts are stubborn things.
There are those who think the clichéd chickens are coming home to roost on Trump. While he may more accurately resemble a foul destined for a central role in a national day of Thanksgiving—complete with a side order of stuffing—there are those like the young staffer I found in the halls of the Senate who believe it is too late, that we may never again resemble the country we once were.
That’s the way we all felt in 1968—until the end of the year. Though much of the previous months was filled with riots, assassinations, nightly body counts, body bags and a palpable fear that our country was tearing itself apart, I still remember James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders. They were the first men to leave the gravity of earth and circle the Moon in Apollo 8. They saw the earth in its entirety and the dark side of the moon with their own eyes. Reading from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon near Christmas, their broadcast was the most watched on television at the time. As a young boy, I couldn’t care less about quoting the Bible. But seeing men explore other worlds gave me hope.
I still carry that hope—and the hope that we all see there is more to our country than the rants and raves of a grandfather who apparently cares little about the Constitution. He just wants those kids off his lawn.
And the Mueller investigation continues.