In 1973, the highly respected author David Wise wrote an insightful book titled The Politics of Lying. And back in President Richard Nixon’s final days, we all thought we had it pretty bad.
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Fast-forward. In 2018, President Donald Trump and certain of the worst elements of his once-Grand Old Party are rewriting the book on what really happens when all governance is fueled by the new high-octane (see also: highly combustible) politics of lying.
The result has been a polluting of the patriotic principles upon which the United States was founded — values revered even in impoverished places faraway where people dare to dream of better tomorrows.
Now this: President Trump’s first year is ending with hopeful people in the distant continent of Africa and nearby Haiti having just heard that America’s president has called their homeland an “s---hole” place. And that has become the basis of his immigration policymaking.
Meanwhile, my colleagues in the mainstream news media realize our job is to make sure we are accurately reporting to Americans just what their government officials are doing — and why they are doing it. Yet there are times when even the most prominent journalists are not performing as well as they know they should — when faced with a politician who is determined to artfully lie.
And we saw several unfortunate examples of that just last Sunday morning, as prominent and talented anchors of news-interview shows repeatedly failed to do what they needed to do when Trump advocates predictably began conning viewers into believing he hadn’t said something shameful they know he not only really said, but really believes.
The Sunday morning controversy sprang from an Oval Office meeting on Thursday, Jan. 11. Earlier that morning, a very pleased Trump had invited Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, to a noon meeting after being told they had reached a bipartisan immigration deal.
By noon, Trump’s mood had darkened.
According to Durbin, with the gist of it reportedly acknowledged by Graham to his fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Trump opposed the deal in that Oval Office meeting and called Africa and Haiti excremental obscenity (s-hole) places, saying he didn’t want immigrants coming to America from those s-hole places.
Trump reportedly also said he wanted more immigrants from places like Norway. Durbin praised Graham for telling Trump he opposed using that language.
But later, conservative Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen maintained they hadn’t heard Trump say that. They were interviewed on Sunday morning’s TV news shows.
Those shows’ prominent anchors had a chance to get a vital clue on how their guests planned to con them and their viewers. On Jan. 11, conservative National Review editor Rich Lowry had revealed a word-game loophole that Trump’s apologists could be expected to use that Sunday.
“I have a worldwide exclusive for you tonight,” Lowry told CNN’s Erin Burnett. He said a “very good source” told him that Trump “didn’t say s-hole, he said s-house.” Lowry added there’s no real difference between the two vulgarities; presidents shouldn’t talk (or think) that way.
If you were a Sunday anchor, you probably would have prepared precisely worded follow ups, thanks to Lowry’s tip. But the real network anchors (my colleagues and in some cases, friends) seem to have missed the clue.
On ABC’s This Week, Purdue told anchor George Stephanopoulos five times that Durbin’s version was “a gross misrepresentation.” But Stephanopoulos never asked precisely what the misrepresentation was. Was it only that Trump said s-house, not s-hole?
On CBS’s Face the Nation, anchor John Dickinson kept asking Cotton if he’d heard Trump say “the word” Durbin cited. So Cotton kept getting away with saying: “I certainly didn’t hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly.”
On Fox News Sunday, anchor Chris Wallace also played video of Durbin’s accusation that Trump called Africa and Haiti s-hole places.
So Nielsen said: “I don’t recall him saying that exact phrase.” “Exact phrase” — that should have tipped off Wallace. But no, he never asked if she meant she’d heard him say s-house, not s-hole. He repeatedly asked the same generality; Nielsen repeatedly stuck to her script, let her loophole lie, and easily slid through it.
So that’s how Donald Trump ended his first year as president: Once again, parents were frantically shielding their children from being exposed to their news-making president.
Worse yet, the world was exposed to the reality that America now has a president with a race-based vision of immigration policy-making: People from the wrong kind of countries should never get a chance to live the American dream. Like the dream that long ago made Germany’s immigrant Drumpf family what it is today.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.