Friday, September 7, 2018
Friday, Sept 7, 2018
Tags: Audio, Ayanna Pressley, Bob Woodward, New York Times
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, September 7, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why it should tell us a great deal that the leading headlines of this week have not been about the Kavanaugh hearings
Technically, the government of the United States, the entire experiment known as the United States of America, is a constitutional republic. That is to say, it is a republic — that's a little “r” — a form of government that is established in an orderly exercise of the democratic impulse through a constitution, thus a constitutional republic. As we have often discussed, that very constitutional form of government is a form that only makes sense within the inheritance of the Christian worldview that defines what it means to be a human being, that thus defines what it means to be a citizen, and more importantly, defines what it means to be a human being with certain rights, inalienable, unalienable rights.
Within the larger categorization of government, thus, it is also right to speak of the United States as a democracy. Now, it's not a pure democracy, it's not a mobocracy, it's not merely a majority rule; it is rule of the people mediated through a constitutional system of government. But as you're looking at the great battle of ideas, it is not wrong to speak of democracy versus dictatorship, and in that sense, America has always been on the democratic side of the ledger, and democracy has been recognized as a good and as a goal, as the very essence of what many Americans would describe as our national impulse.
But democracy in this sense is always messy. Democracy is risky, sometimes more risky than other forms of government that have a greater degree of stability and predictability, but have far lesser respect for human rights and human dignity. But as you're thinking of the United States at this moment, we recognize the particularly messy moment in which the American experiment in self-government now finds itself. We are looking at headline after headline that demonstrates a buffeting and a contesting of the very idea of what it means to be an American, what it means to be invested in the American experiment, what it means to have a president of the United States, what it means to operate within this constitutional system of government.
In the headlines over the last week, of course, we have dealt mostly with the confirmation hearings of the man that President Trump has nominated to be the next justice of the United States Supreme Court. Those hearings went on yesterday, but it was basically a continuation of a partisan farce in so many ways. There was very little of substance that actually happened in the entire course of the hearings yesterday. As we discussed, it was a bit different Wednesday, when the hearings did reveal the most basic issues, if you were listening, of constitutional interpretation and the understanding of the role of the Court and of judges. But yesterday was just basically partisan fisticuffs, and much ado over what might amount to be nothing. Now, the nothing is not the role of the Court, nor even the identity of the next justice, but rather the kind of political show trial, in effect, that was being held yesterday.
But as important as the Supreme Court is, it should tell us a great deal that the leading headlines for the last 72 hours have not related to what almost everyone would have expected, and that is the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, it has been crisis after crisis related to the president of the United States and the internal workings of the White House in the Trump administration. There are two basic catalysts; both of them have dominated the headlines and much of the news and mass media discussion of the last couple of days.
The first has to do with one of the most famous political journalists in the United States, and his new book due out on Tuesday of next week. The journalist is Bob Woodward, for so long paired with Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post and, of course, rather immortalized in American political journalism through his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal related to the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Since then, Bob Woodward has gone on not only to be a journalist, but a bestselling author with a series of books, most often tell-all books, about successive presidencies and moments in recent American history.
But what becomes clear as you look at the new book, to be entitled Fear, on the Trump administration that comes out by Bob Woodward next Tuesday, what is most important is that Woodward's now trademark sense of journalism translated into a book has led once again to statements that are supposedly made by internal figures within the Trump administration that, even if said, are now denied by those same people. Now, this leads to some very interesting thoughts. Did the figures say these words or not? Well, Bob Woodward has always said that he works on the basis of taped discussions, but that then leads to some other questions. Taped discussions with whom? Readers of the book are not listening to the tapes; they are instead reading what Bob Woodward has produced. And, by any estimation, Bob Woodward is a master political storyteller, but just how truthful are the stories that he tells?
One of the early concerns about books by Bob Woodward is that those who participate and cooperate with his books tend — well, perhaps this is not so much a surprise — to appear better or in a better light in the book when it comes out. Now, for years, this has meant that major political figures in Washington have tended to want to talk to Bob Woodward out of the hope that they would appear in a better light when the book actually comes out. Sometimes, this is extended all the way to sitting presidents of the United States.
Those who have read and who have observed Bob Woodward for years will, almost to a person, say that there is no doubt that those taped interviews took place, and that the book actually represents something that someone really did say on the tape. But that then leads to some serious questions. Who was in a position to say what? And when there is someone on a tape, even someone who is relatively highly placed, who says that someone else said something specific, we are then being asked to trust in this book what someone said, what someone said someone else said, and then what Bob Woodward says that someone else said about what someone else might have said, in a book in which the person who supposedly said such a thing now says that he or she did not say such a thing at all.
Now, what that means is that when you are reading a book, there is always, to a greater or a lesser extent, a trust relationship between the reader and the author. Now, when it comes to Bob Woodward, you can trust that this is someone who has been closely observing American politics for the better part of a half century and more. But what you cannot always trust is that you know exactly who stands behind a statement that is being made, sometimes in direct quotes, and sometimes with great historical consequence, or at least potential historical consequence.
Now, from time to time, Bob Woodward has been very successful in getting very powerful people to say very revealing things. For example, in one of his books about the administration of Bush 43, that is, President George W. Bush, he asked President Bush how he believed that history would understand him, would judge him. And at that point, he said, quite famously, "Well, by the time the history is written, we'll all be dead." Now, that's a very important indicator of just how George W. Bush as president of the United States understood his actions then, over against the great tapestry of history. His concern was to do, as he was telling Bob Woodward, what is right now. "History will have to judge what I did later, but I can't act as president based upon what I think some historian might write a generation or two or more from now."
There is, of course, something else behind what you are looking at in the journalism and in the authorship of Bob Woodward. You are looking at the fact that he, along with Carl Bernstein, became famous and absolutely iconic in the world of political journalism such that, by the time the generation of the '60s in college went into the professions such as journalism, they wanted more than anything else to be the next Woodward or Bernstein or both. Since then, it has been instilled in almost every journalism department that young journalists should grow up to do the kind of work that Woodward and Bernstein did during Watergate.
But that also explains a good deal of the context of our media environment today, where the media basically operate in what can only be described as something of an adversary relationship to almost — and maybe the key word here is "almost" — every presidential administration, but few more than in the present. You have to add to that the fact that the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, often acts in such a way, and often speaks, especially through social media, in such a way, and has created a very deliberate political disequilibrium that journalists like Bob Woodward have a great deal of material with which to work. And you can count on the fact that this book will be a bestseller even before the print edition hits the newsstands.
So, as we're looking at the particular instability reflected by Woodward's book and the Trump administration, it is clear that you could not have one without the other. You could not have this particular kind of political controversy and instability without a political administration like the presidency of Donald Trump, and without the kind of journalistic culture that has long now been represented by writers such as Bob Woodward. You put the two together, and you get the kind of explosive situation that has been very much reflected in the mainstream media over just the last several days, and you can count on the fact this will continue for days yet ahead.
As America heads into uncharted waters, responsibility, rather than irresponsibility, is more important than ever
But as an author who counts on a great deal of political chatter in order to build the consumer base for his new book, Bob Woodward must have been disappointed and no doubt shocked by the fact that all the discussion about his book was eclipsed by another development, and this development was an anonymous opinion piece that was run by the New York Times, the nation's most influential newspaper, online on Wednesday and in print on Thursday. The headline of the opinion piece, quote: "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration." The subhead was this: "I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations."
But before turning to the article, we've got to look at the explanation made by the opinion editors of the New York Times, because this is an absolutely unprecedented development. We're talking here about the opinion page of the New York Times. The editors wrote this: "The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure." The editors went on to say, "We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers. We invite you to submit a question about the essay or our vetting process here."
Well, if the editors thought that that was going to be sufficient explanation for why they ran this anonymous piece by an individual identified only as "a senior official in the Trump administration," well, the editors no doubt were also surprised, and they might have been surprised, as we shall see, by the response from the news side of the very same newspaper, the venerable New York Times. As I said, the writer of this anonymous article identified — and here, we are evidently supposed to trust the New York Times — as a senior official in the Trump administration began by writing, "President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader."
"It's not just that the special counsel looms large," said the anonymous author. "Or that the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump's leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hellbent on his downfall. The dilemma," says the author, "which he," meaning President Trump, "does not fully grasp, is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations."
Now, the author identified himself or herself and colleagues as "the resistance." Now, the author goes on to say this is not the resistance of the left; this is the resistance of those who often agree with the president's policies, but disagree with the president's character and with the way he communicates, a certain instability. But to the point, the author then writes, "The root of the problem is the president's amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making."
Now, the author goes on to document specific charges along these lines, but that then raises a massive question, and this is where Christians have to think carefully. The Christian worldview privileges truth. The Christian worldview privileges personal responsibility. One of the realities that is affirmed by historic Christian thinking is not only what we refer to in a minor way as that trust relationship between the author of the book and the reader, but the trust relationship between those who make claims and their own personal character. Now, this becomes even more important when the essence of the article published anonymously is the character of yet another person, even in this case the incumbent president of the United States.
So, what's the bottom line in this? The bottom line is this: To what degree are readers of the New York Times to trust, A, the New York Times, and B, the anonymous author of this article as having credibility to make the charges that are made in the article itself? Now, different readers are going to no doubt come to different conclusions, but the bottom line in all of this is, we do not have an individual to whom we can look and make evaluations as to the credibility of these claims. Readers of the New York Times and those who engage in this conversation are being asked to trust the opinion editors of the New York Times in making this decision. We're being asked to trust that the senior Trump administration official is actually a senior Trump administration official. That raises other questions: Just how senior? Just how official an official?
But we are also being asked, even if we trust A, to trust B, and that is the evaluation made and the motivations behind the article that appeared in the voice of this person identified as an anonymous administration official. But then, on Wednesday night, Politico very interestingly ran an article about the internal tensions this has now created for the New York Times. Go back to what I said about those generations of young journalists raised to believe that he or she must be the next Woodward or Bernstein. What do you do with the fact that your own newspaper has promised protection and anonymity to a source making claims like this?
As Politico makes clear in this article, the internal dynamic in the New York Times is this: Do the crusading investigative journalists in the news division of the New York Times now bear an almost sacred mission to uncover what the editorial board has promised to cover? The two different divisions in the New York Times, the paper often reminds us, are absolutely separate: the editorial and opinion team, on the one hand, and the investigation and journalism team on the other, the news division. But here you see a deep moral quandary. Does one division of the newspaper now have an absolute mission to try to deny what the other side of the very same newspaper promised?
Now, this is where Christians can step back for a moment and say, "Well, this is exactly how the world works after Genesis 3 and the Fall, where even those who believe themselves to be driven by the best of motives often find themselves doing what they would criticize or condemn in others." This reminds me of the kind of espionage literature that came from someone like the famed author John le Carré, in which his famous spies often became exactly what they fought over time. That's what we see in a fallen world, and Christians given a Biblical worldview understand why.
It is also interesting to note that the criticism of the New York Times and the criticism of this anonymous author, that criticism is now coming from some rather unexpected sources. For example, David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who has been a very prominent critic of President Donald Trump, continues his criticism, but then refers to the article as representing a constitutional crisis. He wrote this article at The Atlantic. David Frum, I think, in this case, rightly understands what's at stake: The charges made in this article are just far too important, if true, to be made anonymously.
And this is where Christians understand there's a very important issue here, and that is that truth claims, especially when you have controversial assertions of truth of this kind of character, require evaluation not only in terms of the actual statement made, but the character of the one making the statement and the potential motivations behind the statement. The fact that the New York Times opinion editors ran this anonymous article identified as it was, while what we have are very serious charges made which, if true, are even more serious than the cultural conversation now has reflected. But we do not know from whom the charges have come, and furthermore, we are being told that the person we are to trust making these charges is to be trusted for making the decision to speak out anonymously, rather than to assume ownership and responsibility before the American public for the kind of accusations that are here being made.
I've often disagreed with David Frum, but I think he makes a very good point at the end of this article in The Atlantic, when he addresses this anonymous senior Trump administration official with these words: "Previous generations of Americans have sacrificed fortunes, health, and lives to serve the country. You are asked only to tell the truth aloud and with your name attached." We are now headed into what can only be described as uncharted waters in American politics, and what happens now will have a great impact on the kind of government and civil order that our children and grandchildren will one day inherit. But the preservation of this constitutional republic requires personal and communal responsibility, but what we see across the board right now is a greater demonstration almost everywhere of irresponsibility rather than responsibility.
Finally, on this issue, when you write this kind of article anonymously and make these kind of charges, you can count on this: Just about every investigative journalist in the world, particularly in the United States, is going to understand a sacred mission to try to identify who you are. As America's experience in Watergate long before cable news, long before social media, the reality is that that identification may be delayed, but it will not eventually be denied.
Is all politics still local? What a political upset in Massachusetts tells us about America's political trajectory
But next, we turn to the state of Massachusetts, where on Tuesday, that state's Democratic Party primary produced yet another thunderclap in America's political culture. In this case, a veteran very liberal United States congressman, the Democrat, he was refused his own party's nomination, defeated in the primary by an upstart who didn't so much differ on the issues at all, but rather differed on questions of personal identity, political identity. On Tuesday, Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley defeated, and defeated quite soundly, an incumbent representative, Michael Capuano, in the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts.
Now, what makes that really important? Well, let's put it in an historical frame. That was the congressional seat held by John Fitzgerald Kennedy. That was the congressional seat later held by Tip O'Neill, who became the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives. Tip O'Neill was famous, if for nothing else, for his statement, "All politics is local." What did he mean by that? He meant that in Boston, in the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts, and everywhere where Congress members are elected, he said, "You have to remember, all politics is local." Every single representative is elected on the basis of a district. That district has local concerns and a local identity.
Tip O'Neill's mantra came down to the fact that every single member of Congress must always remember that all politics is local. John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a young congressman was largely elected because he represented what the people of that district thought of themselves in electing this youthful veteran of World War II. And later, of course, Tip O'Neill, who, again, served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, seemed almost the personal representation of the Massachusetts 7th District. Irish in background, liberal Democrat in policies, a political figure who operated within the precincts of politics like a veteran. If Tip O'Neill did not know the identity of every voter who shook his hand, he at least led that voter to believe he knew him, and he knew his grandmother, and he knew his cousins, and he knew everything about him or her. That's what it means for all politics to be local.
But that's exactly what points to Tuesday's primary as such a game changer, because on Tuesday, this councilwoman who defeated the incumbent liberal Democrat who had served for so many terms, did so not on the basis of anything local to Boston whatsoever. As a matter of fact, Ayanna Pressley wasn't born in Boston; she was born in Chicago. She's not Irish, she's African American. So what exactly was happening? Well, she ran saying that it was time for new faces in Congress, and by that, she made open reference to her gender identity and her ethnic identity as African American.
Another important point made by observers such as Peter Beinart — he's a professor of journalism at the City University of New York — writing again for The Atlantic, he pointed out that between the two candidates, it was Pressley who had the greater passion for so many of the issues. The two candidates were roughly equally liberal, equally representative in that sense of the liberal constitution of the Massachusetts 7th District. But, of the two candidates, it was Pressley who represented a new face, a new look, a new generation, and a new passion.
But, as Peter Beinart points out, that's basically the refutation of Tip O'Neill, telling us that right now, we are witnessing in the Democratic Party not only a decided shift to the left, but a decided nationalization of virtually every single race. For years, the conventional wisdom is that members of Congress have gotten elected and reelected by saying to members of their districts, "Don't worry about what goes on in Washington. I've got your back, and I will always be one of you. You can count on the fact that I will take care of local issues. Just send me to Washington and watch me do what I promise." But in the case of Ayanna Pressley, it wasn't that she said, "Local politics don't matter," it was that she pointed to national issues with intensity and said, "Imagine that it could be different."
To some observers, this just looks like another incumbent defeated by an insurgent candidate, but looking at this in the larger worldview picture, what it reveals is that America is changing, state by state, region by region, even congressional district by district. There is every evidence right now that on both the Democratic and the Republican sides, Tip O'Neill's venerable adage, his conventional wisdom that was known and prized by members of both parties, "All politics is local," is now being replaced by almost exactly the opposite. Now, all politics is national. That's not a small change. Over time, in America's political landscape, it will change almost everything.