On the first day of the Senate Supreme Court hearings for nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in between screams from protesters and angered statements by both sides of the political aisle, there was a moment symbolic of the current leadership in the White House.
It is a familiar refrain from the GOP and the White House since Donald Trump dragged his scarred knuckles into the White House and plopped his bulbous visage into the chair behind the Resolute desk. The Kavanaugh hearing is just another example of the spreading stain of divisiveness that has engulfed both sides of the aisle and brought us to a moment in time where many Americans are asking “Can we survive?” The question is relevant because of Trump’s continued brow-beating, displays of child-like bullying behavior and his complete disregard for the rule of law which have his fans raving and his critics craving his departure.
On the same day Kavanaugh was introduced to the Senate and told us all about his kids and coaching Catholic Youth basketball, excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book Fear were made public. Woodward claims White House staffers, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, are sure the president is bat guano crazy and Kelly apparently described the White House as “Crazy Town.” This was met by Trump tweeting out that Woodward was a Democratic operative with a hidden agenda while Kelly denied he ever said anything bad at all in his life about anyone ever.
Of course, Sarah Huckabee Sanders jumped in and accused Wolff, who wrote Fire and Fury...I mean Omarosa, who wrote Unhinged..I mean Woodward who wrote Fear, of seeking attention. “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad,” Sanders said about Wolff, Omarosa, Woodward, et al.
The first president I covered was Ronald Reagan. He never closed the briefing room and while he made damn few appearances, he made far more than Trump.
“Sure we can survive,” they tell us. “Trust in Trump. He’ll set you free, create the best economy, tell us all the truth and cure warts with his kind words.”
The first president I covered was Ronald Reagan. He dealt with the Iran-Contra scandal, among others. He vilified the press. He never closed the briefing room and while he made damn few appearances, he made far more than Trump. George Herbert Walker Bush and I got into a disagreement at a news conference in San Antonio. Bush was seen as a “mean spirited wimp” by a certain number of reporters. Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s press secretary, didn’t exactly like the press either. He kept the press room open. Bill Clinton was impeached and couldn’t tell you what the definition of “is” is. George W. Bush lied repeatedly about weapons of mass destruction. Obama’s White House prosecuted more whistle blowers under the espionage act than any president in history. They all showed up to battle the press.
But not Trump. He just attacks from the safety of a tweet or a rally like a petulant child who sticks his tongue out and runs from a fight. Other presidents didn’t like the press, but understood the need to engage reporters—something Sanders has explained to me on numerous occasions she doesn’t believe to be all that necessary. “My job was to fight to get them (press conferences) on the schedule and to explain to dubious other White House staff why we needed to engage with the press,” Mike McCurry explained.
McCurry, who served as press secretary under Clinton, was respected by the press for his honesty, even at the expense of those he served. Not only did McCurry and Clinton never consider closing briefings—even as scandals broke around Clinton—McCurry tried to create “backgrounders” where the “press could interact with Clinton in a ‘not for direct attribution’ setting.” Meanwhile, Trump has gone missing while others are upset with reporters asking questions “out of turn” without permission from Sanders while she poses as a schoolmarm dictating who may or may not speak and when it is appropriate to do so.
This is particularly interesting considering the history I have witnessed myself. Among the first events I saw in the White House was Helen Thomas pounding on Larry Speake’s office door (the same office inhabited by Sanders) and demanding Speakes “come out and face the music.” McCurry remembers well his own interactions with the dean of the press corps. “Helen met me at 7 a.m. every morning. She was the first there and always expected a coffee and a donut.” She and Donaldson were among the more animated reporters in the press room and while every presidential news conference began and ended with Helen, most everything else was free-wheeling. “Sam would bellow questions,” McCurry remembered. “He’d flap his arms and give me grief but then would come up to my office after the briefing and say, ‘Okay, what do I really need to know?’”
I think that presidents deserve to be questioned. Maybe irreverently, most of the time. Bring ‘em down a size. You see a president, ask a question. You have one chance in the barrel. Don’t blow it.
Today, he’d be accused of being a Democratic operative and threatened with expulsion. Donaldson, often accused of being rude and speaking out of turn, had his own ideas of appropriate behavior. “I concluded that a reporter’s role ought to be one of continuing, unrelenting skepticism about government’s actions. Not hostility, but a continuing eyes-open look at what the establishment is doing,” he said in his autobiography.
Thomas had similar ideas. “I think that presidents deserve to be questioned. Maybe irreverently, most of the time. Bring ‘em down a size. You see a president, ask a question. You have one chance in the barrel. Don’t blow it.” Thomas and Donaldson, along with Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite and others in this business I’ve met and with whom I have enjoyed a palaver or two believe the press as an institution is the last and best tool to keep the president from becoming a king in all but name.
Walter Cronkite once told me prior to an event at the National Press Club, “Don’t listen to the criticism if they say you are rude. Don’t worry. And don’t get upset with other reporters if they get too close. Maintain your distance and always ask questions no matter what they call you.” His was a strong and independent voice and in the past his behavior was acknowledged and appreciated, if not often cheered by those in the White House who despite whatever objections understood the role a free press plays in our society.
“They were adversarial as they should be,” McCurry said of Donaldson and Thomas specifically. “But our relationship was also amicable and professional.” The professionalism is noticeably missing in a White House that screams “Fake News” and ignores the deaths of community journalists and the many threats against other reporters while calling us enemies of the people. We have not been very good, as of yet, in pushing back against this onslaught. As Donaldson noted, many reporters are “too close” to their sources. Many fear losing access to the president. Rather once said the press had become gutless. That was a quarter of a century ago. So what are we now?
Chuck Todd on Meet the Press noted this week that “access isn’t the journalist’s holy grail,” something many reporters don’t often understand. “Facts are.” President Trump governs from tweets, pool sprays, calls his enemies a variety of names and engages in behavior that would ensure he would never be invited to a neighborhood barbecue though it didn’t seem to preclude him from an invitation to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At the end of the day he is the living embodiment of the old adage, “If you can’t take the heat then get out of the kitchen.”
That’s why he won’t show up in the press briefing room. He doesn’t like that heat. It’s why he says that reporters want their moment on television—because he actually wants to control the message and fears an open press conference would be beyond his control. He wants the sound bytes. He wants the moment and he wants all the attention.
So, he’s retired like a princess perched in his electric chair (with apologies to Elton John - an artist often heard, apparently against his will - at Trump rallies) to his White House bedroom where he governs by tweets and calls his own appointees idiots and far worse. But the heat in the kitchen is spreading and Trump may be unable to avoid it as long as he calls the White House home. Here’s something else: The press corps is waking up.