In ‘The Post,’ Spielberg offers a hopeful message for our Trumpian times

Spielberg’s Nixon is the proto-Trump. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.

Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.

The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”

Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.

The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.

Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:

That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.

“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.

Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:

In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.

One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.

In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.

But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.

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The timid Times: What’s wrong with political coverage at our leading newspaper

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I’ve been trying for a while to think through a column on what’s wrong with The New York Times’ political coverage. The topic is so broad that it defies easy analysis. The Times is too big and too good to disparage in categorical terms. For every example I could come up with of a story that should have been framed differently, a defender of the Times could point to several that were pitch perfect. And yet something is off. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone and emphasis. Sometimes it’s more serious.

A couple of years ago I made The Washington Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe. Partly it was because I was starting to research my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” much of which is about how the Post and the Globe have fared under the ownership of billionaires Jeff Bezos and John Henry. But partly it was because I simply found the Post more compelling than the Times.

I read the Post because of its fierce and authoritative coverage of national politics, especially of President Trump. It was, after all, the Post that broke the two most important Trump stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of his charitable foundation and the existence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he is heard crudely boasting about sexual assault. And it has continued. Without the Post’s reporting, a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, would be taking his place in the Senate this month.

When I make the Times my first read, it’s because the writing is better, it offers a broader range of topics, and it carries greater social currency. For all the Post’s success under Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, it just hasn’t become part of the national conversation to the same extent as the Times. But there is a timidity to some of the Times’ political coverage — a deep institutional need to offer balance when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side, to cover Trump as though he is an undisciplined, falsehood-spewing, but essentially normal president.

In the Times, Trump’s awfulness is too often portrayed as a matter of degree rather than of evidence that our media and political system is fundamentally broken. The picture that emerges is of a news organization often out of sync with its mostly liberal audience and that is way too concerned about what conservatives might say. The media observer Jay Rosen recently criticized executive editor Dean Baquet’s quest for balance in his reporters’ use of social media. Although I largely agreed with Baquet’s order that straight-news reporters refrain from opinionated tweets, Rosen’s assessment of the Times’ and the Post’s use of social media spoke to deeper truths about both news organizations:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence — in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Let me offer an example that gets at some of what I’m talking about: Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s remarkable interview with Trump last week at the president’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida. On the one hand, their conversation produced all sorts of news, the most important of which was Trump’s apparent signal that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller (but who knows?). On the other hand, the interview was an exercise in pure access journalism at a paper that has come to overvalue access (see: Maggie Haberman). Schmidt contented himself with asking questions and recording Trump’s answers rather than challenging his numerous falsehoods. It certainly didn’t help that Schmidt, with Emily Cochrane, followed up with a story on Trump’s New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago that read like a fanzine report on who was wearing what at the Oscars.

Schmidt’s passivity in his interview with Trump sparked outrage among liberals on Twitter, and Schmidt defended himself in a separate article. “I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements,” he wrote. As for the falsehoods, the Times dealt with those in yet another story. Personally, I thought Schmidt’s interview with Trump was valuable. Access journalism has its uses as long as it is supplemented with investigative reporting, and there has been no shortage of that in the Times. Yet it’s hard to forget that Schmidt was the lead reporter on a story in July 2015 that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for her use of a private email server, leading to two corrections, an editor’s note, and a tough column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post. Then again, the Times’ quarter-century obsession with mostly nonexistent wrongdoing by the Clintons is worthy of a separate column — or a book.

Even great journalism by the Times calls to mind past problems. On Saturday the paper published a devastating report that the FBI began its Russia inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted, the Times had dismissed the idea that the FBI was investigating Trump just days before the 2016 election. Granted, there was much that was unknown then. But Wemple argued that the earlier story drew “relatively sweeping conclusions” about the FBI’s alleged non-involvement when a more open-ended approach was called for. Sullivan’s successor as public editor, Liz Spayd, followed up with a highly critical column that reportedly enraged Baquet. The public editor’s position was later eliminated.

On New Year’s Day the Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, greeted his audience with a message paying tribute to his family’s heritage dating back to Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896. Sulzberger said all the right things, including this:

The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

This is a restatement of New York Times journalism at its best: truth over balance, independence over access, courage over fear of criticism. Even now, these values characterize much of what the Times publishes. But the lapses are frustrating and unnecessary.

I don’t mean to make too much of the Times’ shortcomings. If there’s a smoking gun with regard to Trump and the Russia investigation, I think the “failing New York Times” is as likely to expose it as the “Amazon Washington Post.” Both are indispensable news organizations and both are producing great work. But journalists at the Post give the impression of knowing who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re doing. I wish I could say the same about the Times — and I hope the day will come when I can.

Friday updates

1. Shortly after my column was published, Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan weighed in with some similar observations. In her case as well as mine, the trigger was Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s recent interview with President Trump in which Schmidt was content to take dictation rather than challenge Trump over any of the numerous falsehoods that came tumbling out of his mouth. I particularly liked this Sullivan soundbite:

The Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.

Like me, Sullivan was impressed with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s introductory message. I hope Sulzberger translates his rhetoric into action.

2. Give Schmidt his due. On Thursday the Times published his latest, which may prove to be among the most significant of the Russia investigation: a report that Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the government’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Sessions, who really had no choice, recused himself anyway. The story is full of choice details, such as Trump angrily asking “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and an underling’s trying to mislead Trump into believing that he did not have the authority to fire FBI director James Comey. As Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine, put it:

3. Good Times, bad Times. A story about Steve Bannon’s swift fall after he got caught telling Michael Wolff what he really thinks about the Trumps mentions a project co-founded by Bannon called the Government Accountability Institute. Among other things, the institute published a 2015 book called “Clinton Cash,” which the Times describes as having “damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign.” The book was written by Peter Schweizer, who also writes for Breitbart News. What the Times does not mention is that is that both the Times and the Post partnered with Bannon’s institute in obtaining early access to the book, described as riddled with errors by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress. Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress wrote shortly after the 2016 election:

Instead of fact-checking, the Times and Post ignored Clinton Cash’s errors Schweizer’s history of inaccuracy and amplified the book’s anti-Clinton innuendos — material Trump himself used to attack Hillary, win the presidency, and empower white nationalists like Bannon. Now, in the wake of a campaign where fake news outperformed legitimate reporting, the country’s two largest papers are left penning editorials condemning Trump for elevating a man whose flawed work they amplified.

Rupar did not claim that the Times or the Post passed along any false information from Schweizer’s book. Nevertheless, if the Times is going to bring up “Clinton Cash” in a story about Bannon, it ought to mention its own involvement.

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The New York Times and that nice young Nazi next door

The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.

The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way. For instance, here is a paragraph that teeters on the brink:

In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.

As Susieus Maximus put it on Twitter: “It’s like the writer either never heard the phrase, ‘the banality of evil,’ or else thought that all they had to show was the banality.”

The Times is performing badly in so many ways lately. It’s a shame that it can’t produce a straightforward profile of a Nazi without doing better than this.

Some updates. The antidote to the Times story is The Boston Globe’s series on York, Pennsylvania, by Matt Viser. Rather than simply mailing in postcards from Trump country, Viser has been balancing the views of Trump supporters with those who are horrified by what is going on. The latest installment was published today.

The Times has published a commentary by Fausset in which he admits that he didn’t come back with quite what he wanted. And the Times itself has posted a reaction to the feedback it’s received. “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” writes national editor Marc Lacey. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”

Finally, Mangy Jay has posted a very smart thread on Twitter outlining how the Times could have — should have — approached a story that clearly went off the rails.

The last word. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post nails it: “The best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.”

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Margaret Sullivan on the media’s terrible coverage of the Clinton campaign

There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.

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Trumping his measured rhetoric, president goes off at the United Nations

The morning print headlines:

  • “Muted Trump Embraces U.N. Before Speech” (New York Times)
  • “Trump plans pragmatic U.N. speech” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump shifts global tone, engagement” (Boston Globe)

The afternoon web headlines:

  • “At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy North Korea’” (New York Times)

  • “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man’” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea in UN speech” (Boston Globe)

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It’s time for some answers on the Globe’s printing woes

In trying to think through what’s behind the crisis at The Boston Globe’s new Taunton printing facility, it seems logical that one of two things is going on. The first possibility is that the problems are fixable but that they have taken longer to resolve than anyone expected. The second is much worse: that the presses the Globe bought are not up to the task, will never be up to the task, and shouldn’t have been purchased in the first place. I certainly hope it’s the former and not the latter.

The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert, citing “multiple sources,” reports that Boston Globe Media’s chief operating officer, Sean Keohan, has left the company — a departure that, Seiffert hastens to add, may or may not be related to the printing problems.

This comes within days of a tough statement from the Boston Herald — which is printed by the Globe — apologizing to its readers for the poor job the Globe is doing of printing its tabloid rival. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said. (My WGBH News colleague Emily Rooney praised the Herald on “Beat the Press” for speaking out.)

A number of sources have told me that printing woes have required the Globe to set deadlines so early that the print edition is often missing sport scores — even when the Red Sox play at home. Papers are going undelivered. In addition to the Herald, the Globe also prints The New York Times, and, needless to say, that is not a relationship that Globe owner John Henry wants to endanger.

The problem right now is that few people know for sure what’s going on. When the Globe endured its home-delivery fiasco about a year and a half ago, the paper itself published the definitive story about what had gone wrong. It was thorough and unsparing. This time, we haven’t heard much since Globe Media chief executive Doug Franklin left in mid-July. We need to see the Globe once again rise to the occasion and report on what has gone wrong and how it is going to be fixed.

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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Major errors at The New York Times destroy the premise of two stories

There have been two enormous mistakes in The New York Times this week — errors that completely undermined the premise of the stories.

1. On Monday, Lisa Friedman wrote that government scientists had surreptitiously given her a draft report on climate change because they were concerned that the Trump administration would suppress it. But as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explained, the report had been publicly available for months, and was even parked at the Internet Archive.

2. On Wednesday, Adam Nagourney reported on an internecine battle among California Democrats that is supposed to tell us something about the struggle between the party’s progressive and establishment wings. It struck me as pretty thin gruel given that we learn both combatants in the bid for party chair, Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis, supported Hillary Clinton last year, although Bernie Sanders is supporting Ellis now.

But then we get to the bottom and see this: “An earlier version of this article misstated the candidate Kimberly Ellis supported in the Democratic primary race last year. It was Hillary Clinton, not Senator Bernie Sanders.”

Imagine reading this before the correction was made. It’s a completely different story. It’s not about the continued hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters at all. As with the climate-change story, it’s the sort of article that might very well not have been published at all if the facts had been clear beforehand.

I know that quite a few copy editors lost their jobs at the Times recently. Could that have something to do with it? Maybe. But the Times still has a larger editing corps than any other paper. Moreover, these kinds of large, conceptual errors strike me as something that have been endemic at the Times for many years. I suspect it has more to do with the culture than the copy editing.

Sounds like a good topic for the public editor. Oh, wait. Never mind.

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Pence’s petulance undescores his tricky relationship with Trump

Mike Pence. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020. Much of the article, by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, concerns the 2020 ambitions of Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But we also learn that Pence has been unusually active in boosting his political prospects, although he “has made no overt efforts to separate himself from the beleaguered president. He has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”

This is all pretty unremarkable stuff. Pence himself, though, erupted as though he had been accused of mocking the size of Trump’s hands, calling the Times article“disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” as well as “categorically false.” As Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Sorta stunned that an obvious point from the NYT piece about a sitting VP’s own ambitions appears to be causing Team Pence such heartburn.”

What makes the Times article so sensitive, needless to say, is the nontrivial chance that Pence will be running for president in 2020 as the incumbent. Although it seems unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office, the inexorable progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may well yield the sort of information that could persuade Trump to disappear. It’s a prospect that no doubt gladdens the hearts of congressional Republicans even more than Democrats, since they would be rid of their rage-tweeting ruler and his record low approval ratings. A Pence presidency would give them a chance to start over.

Yet Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, seems unimpressed with the vice president. Kristol stirred the pot after the Times story was published by tweeting, “It’s bold of Team Pence to plant the front-page NYT story on plans for 2020, then object vociferously. Multi-dimensional chess!” And when Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Pence’s over-the-top response would “make one think Pence had committed theft stead of fluffing own brand,” Kristol retorted, “Pence committed the crimes of 1) theft of spotlight from @POTUS and 2) suspicion of less than total subservience to @POTUS even in private.”

Even before the Times story revealed the extent of Pence’s politicking, the vice president’s standing with Trump may have been more fragile than we outsiders imagine. There is, of course, Trump’s one-way definition of loyalty: he demands total fealty and gives back nothing in return. But Pence has also shown that he is not immune to the scent of blood in the water. As the columnist Richard North Patterson observed in The Boston Globe, Pence — whom Patterson described as “an incompetent ideologue, an obsequious toady, and a self-serving schemer” — made it clear to everyone last fall that he was available for the drafting when it looked like the “Access Hollywood” tape might sink Trump’s campaign.

Thus for all the deference Pence has shown, Trump may regard him as someone who is no better than former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who, as head of the Republican Party, reportedly urged Trump to drop out after the tape was exposed by The Washington Post. As an elected official in his own right, Pence, unlike Priebus, can’t be fired by Trump. But that doesn’t mean Pence’s position is entirely safe.

For anyone of moderate or liberal views, a Pence presidency might be even worse than what we’ve got now. Pence is well regarded on Capitol Hill, especially by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He knows how to handle himself in public. And he is an extreme right-wing ideologue who, you can be sure, would stand a far better chance than Trump of rolling back years of progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice. The Affordable Care Act would once again be in danger. (On the other hand, Trump would no longer have access to the nuclear codes — no small thing given his unstable behavior.)

If there was any doubt, the Times article reminds us that Pence is ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he is ambitious in the way vice presidents normally are or if he is aggressively trying to take advantage of Trump’s weak position. In either case, he’s not going away. Even if Trump wants him to.

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Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

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