A year ago, as the Trump Era was dawning in Washington, I peered into the future and tried to predict what we should expect from our strange new president.
“We should give Trump a chance,” I wrote before his inauguration, a chance to keep his promises to “grow jobs, improve healthcare, drain the swamp and be a president for all Americans.”
“I’m going to keep an open mind,” I promised, “look for signs of wisdom and virtue in his new administration, and give him credit if I find it.”
I’m still looking.
At the end of the year, pundits owe their readers an accounting of what they got wrong over the last 12 months — and what, if anything, they got right. Here’s what I got wrong about President Trump during 2017:
After covering his campaign, I expected Trump to govern with the quirky combination of conservatism and working-class populism that helped him win. I figured he would focus relentlessly on blue-collar jobs, which would mean infrastructure spending and trade reform as well as tax cuts.
Instead, in office, Trump has governed like a plutocrat.
His economic program has consisted of little more than tax cuts for business owners, plus deregulation. (Yes, the tax bill included middle-class tax cuts, too, but they evaporate at the end of 2025.) His promise to spend billions on infrastructure has been sidelined. And he hasn’t done much to stop American jobs from moving overseas. His trade policy has been mostly threats, with little action.
When it comes to economics, our purportedly populist president has been captured by the Republican business establishment.
I fully expected Trump to continue his attacks on the norms of American democracy: the rule of law, civil discourse, freedom of the press and racial tolerance. But I didn’t think he’d escalate those attacks.
When demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent, Trump resisted blaming the white supremacists who started the melee. He waded needlessly into the controversy over Confederate statues — a local issue, not a federal question. He attacked African American NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, and African American basketball players for being insufficiently grateful when he arranged their release from jail in China.
Almost alone among major American politicians, he can’t bring himself to condemn racism clearly — a cynical political strategy to keep the culture war white-hot.
I also underestimated Trump’s determination to deport immigrants who entered the country illegally, including many who have established families and integrated into communities. “His bark may prove worse than his bite,” I suggested.
Wrong again. In the first nine months of his presidency, detentions and removals soared — including a 250 percent increase in arrests of immigrants with no criminal record.
But Trump has been less disruptive than I feared in one area: foreign policy.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security advisor H.R. McMaster appear to have tempered the president’s incendiary instincts — so far, at least.
Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea but has allowed Tillerson to continue trying diplomacy instead. He threatened to scrap the international agreement blocking Iran from nuclear weapons but settled for demanding new sanctions. He threatened to walk away from U.S. military obligations to NATO but accepted an increase in European defense spending.
He’s still eroding the alliances the United States built after World War II and reducing American influence around the world. But he hasn’t started a war. (I promised to give credit where credit was due, remember?)
I did manage to get a few things right over the course of the year.
I suggested that the economy would continue growing, especially with promises of tax cuts in the air. “Although Republicans hated the idea of stimulus when it bore President Obama’s name, watch them hail Trump’s as an act of genius,” I wrote.
I forecast that Obamacare would survive GOP attempts at repeal — and that “more voters may demand a single-payer plan” once they considered the alternatives.
And I suggested that one of the big challenges for journalists — and citizens, too — would be distinguishing between important problems and trivial ones in a chaotic, noisy presidency.
“We should try to stop chasing shiny objects and focus on the most important issues,” I counseled.
And, I argued, we should aim to “normalize” Trump — not in the sense of pretending what he does is normal, but in the sense of holding him to high standards.
We should “demand that Trump normalize himself, because he’s the only one who can,” I wrote. “We should ask him to be normal. We should demand that he do what he said he would do on election night: try to unite the country.”
Twelve months later, that’s still a pretty good description of the task we face as we head into 2018, this time with a congressional election ahead.
WASHINGTON — The moment really belonged to the New York Times. But somehow, the Washington Post keeps receiving the honors for saving the nation’s free press and the constitutional declaration that protects it — the First Amendment.
It was the Times that first printed the Pentagon Papers, having received them from Daniel Ellsberg, a reformed hawk on Vietnam, who worked for the Rand think tank that had been commissioned by the Defense Department to compile a lengthy history of the conflict up to 1967, including how we got there. Beginning on a Sunday, the story in infinite detail ran several days before the White House blundered badly and ordered a shutdown of further publication on grounds of national security and went to court to enforce the order. By that time much of the public outside the Beltway had lost interest in the turgid recounting.
A paranoid Nixon and his minions, however, regarded the publication as just another disloyal, left-leaning mainline press effort to undermine not only the war but the administration entirely. Sound familiar?
Enter the Washington Post whose owner and its editor not only weren’t Nixon fans but were chagrined at the “scoop” by the paper they considered (grandiosely) their only competition … and right under their noses. They were desperate to find a way in and Nixon gave it to them. Their lawyers informed owner Katherine Graham and her “ruggedly dashing” executive editor, Ben Bradlee, that the president’s actions amounted to “prior restraint” — a decidedly constitutionally challengeable action. The newspaper defied the embargo and printed their own copy of the papers.
Suddenly, it became the Post’s story and the historic significance and relevance shifted to freedom of the press and the validity of the bedrock amendment to the Constitution and, of course, the stuff from which Hollywood makes movies. And that is what the filmmakers have done in a prequel to the Watergate saga, which was to stimulate another world-saving effort by the Post in “All the President’s Men.”
Let me make it clear I have not seen “The Post,” the latest Hollywood vision of great journalism as it may or may not have taken place. But I did cover the entire momentous business at the time.
I have read reviews and if they are accurate, the movie while compellingly dramatic with its first-line actors and directors, raises concern that some liberties have been taken with the Post’s motivation based on Bradlee’s autobiography. The newspaper’s constant recalling of those days of fame and glory including the later Watergate incident has become, at times, overbearing to say the least.
It’s rather like a reporter I once complimented on the jacket he was wearing. He replied: “Thank you. I was wearing this when I won the Pulitzer Prize.”
There are bound to be small inaccuracies that creep into most biopics. And Hollywood always takes every opportunity to increase the drama. It’s why producers put “based” on a true story in the opening credits rather than just “a true story.” For instance, Katherine Graham, whose father bought the paper in 1933 at auction, is quoted as saying it was the only job she ever had.
That isn’t true. Her father arranged for her to take a job at the San Francisco News where she worked as a leg person on the docks for the paper’s renowned labor reporter. She became a close friend of a union leader but the relationship was abandoned when she returned to marry Phillip Graham, who her father had installed as the newspaper’s chief executive. Graham was reportedly abusive, allegedly flaunting his mistress among other things. He later killed himself, forcing her to take over as an inexperienced manager of the Post. Her brilliant autobiography holds little back.
It was a rather shy, insecure wife and mother — bolstered by Bradlee — who sanctioned the Pentagon Papers decision. And the Supreme Court’s 6-3 endorsement of her argument made her more assured when it came to the Watergate investigation. In that incident, she wisely refused demands and entreaties to remove Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the story and replace them with more experienced national staffers. The Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire entrepreneur of Amazon fame.
Will I see “The Post” movie? Certainly, since I’m addicted to this kind of drama. Anyway, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend or something like that. One has to wonder how Bezos might have met the challenge.
In the spirit of New Year’s Day tomorrow, the Journal Star editorial board would like to suggest some tongue-in-cheek resolutions to prominent elected officials and other Nebraskans:
President Donald Trump: Two words: Stop. Tweeting.
Congressional Republican leadership: At least try to pass a significant bill through the normal legislative process.
Congressional Democrats: Throw your hands in the air in disgust fewer times.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Sen. Ben Sasse: Start a competition for best hair in their respective houses of Congress — and give Nebraska a sweep in the field. (They’re well on their way.)
Gov. Pete Ricketts: Win passage of a significant legislative goal or watch the Cubs (owned by his family) win another World Series title. Unlike our congressional delegation, his hair won’t win any awards.
The Nebraska Legislature: Spend less than a third of the session arguing about the rules — it’ll be an improvement over last year.
Nebraska Democrats: Win an election. Or at least field candidates for 2018 elections.
Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler: Don’t buy any public art, for at least the next few days.
University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green: Offer Kaitlyn Mullen an adjunct professorship to teach political science.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers: Sue God again — this time, in regards to global warming — to prove a needed political point. Potential bonuses include attracting even more countersuits from those claiming to be the Almighty than the last time and overcoming obvious jurisdictional issues.
Nebraska football coach Scott Frost: Continue your early pace and sign every prep football player in the state as a walk-on. (Oh, and beat Wisconsin. Or at least Iowa.)
Nebraska men’s basketball coach Tim Miles: End Nebrasketball’s 0-for-eternity drought of winning an NCAA Tournament game.
Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams: Finish with a better record than last season.
That last one? It’s already done — wrapped up in 2017, no less. And who says New Year’s resolutions aren’t attainable?
Following a sometimes-brutal 2017, one often marked by angry rhetoric and an insistence on division instead of unity, we want everyone to head into 2018 as kinder and gentler. In 2018, we must all find a cooperative spirit and sense of humor. In that vein, let us end our year of editorials with the rarely sung final verse of “Auld Lang Syne”:
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right goodwill draught,
for auld lang syne.
— Journal Star, Dec. 31, 2017