STEVE ROTHSTEIN: Welcome! Welcome, welcome. My name is Steve Rothstein, and I'm the Executive Director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. And on behalf of all of the Library and Foundation teams, we're thrilled to have you here for the first Forum, not just of the New Year, but of the centennial year of President Kennedy's 100th birthday. This is a very special night, with obviously amazing– [applause]
We are grateful for the special partnership tonight with WBUR and Charlie Kravetz and the team from BUR. Let's hear for BUR; we love that. [applause]
We also want to recognize the generous underwriters for the Forums: Lead sponsor Bank of America, the Lowell Institute; our media sponsors, the Globe, Xfinity, and WBUR.
Tonight, you're going to hear some very reflective comments. And there's a chance for you to participate. So when many of you came in, you were given cards. You can write questions down. If you didn't get one, there'll be individuals who will be passing them around. If you want to have a question and you didn't get a card, you can ask them for one. Or if you've written one down, they'll collect it a few times during the session. And then those will be given and sorted through Tom.
We also have overflow. This is being watched live online, streaming. And we have friends at the John F. Kennedy Library in Hyannis, and they're watching it as well. And at other places. So welcome to our friends in Hyannis.
As I say, this is the first big event of the centennial year. If I would tell you all of them, I would take the whole hour-and-a-half, so I won't. But just a few quick things: You'll be getting more information, but in this very hall, on February 20th, we'll be dedicating with the US Postmaster General a new stamp honoring President Kennedy. The first weekend in April, we'll be having – and if any of you want to participate, let us know afterwards – 35 touch football games to honor the President who loved touch football and physical fitness. Next Tuesday, President Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, will be here speaking. And there'll be so much more throughout the year. So we look forward to having you join us for many of those ideas.
Tonight's panel is incredible, is really distinguished. And I'll define that in just a second.
The moderator, Tom Ashbrook, obviously the host of NPR's On Point [applause]; Brian McGrory, the editor of the Boston Globe [applause]; Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and lecturer at Harvard Law School [applause] – and if you haven't read his book, Life Animated, I really encourage you, the book or the movie; it's really quite moving – and then, Heather Cox Richardson, Boston College history professor and author of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party [applause].
When I say they're distinguished, between the four folks up here, they have written 15 books; they have won five Pulitzers; there is a Livingston Prize for National Reporting; a Nieman Fellow – leaders in real news, not fake news – and obviously educators. [applause]
So it reminds me of the night when President Kennedy had the Nobel Prize winners at the White House and said – thinking about these four individuals – "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." [laughter]
Welcome, and turn it over to Tom. [applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Thank you, Steve, thank you very much. And welcome everybody. We'll have midnight touch football out on the green here after the gathering.
It's terrific to be here tonight. It's appropriate to be here together tonight. I don't know about all of you, but I have been in more fraught and wound-up gatherings in the last two months than I can remember at any two-month stretch in my life. People looking to each other and saying, "What is going on? What has happened? Where are you? What's up with our country?"
I was just on Twitter before we came up, of course, with my friend Don. [laughter] And there are all these pictures streaming through of Donald Trump standing on the steps halfway up the Lincoln Memorial with Abe Lincoln behind him. There's a big Make America Great rally going on that Honest Abe is looking out over right now in Washington. He's standing in the same place that Marian Anderson stood in 1939 and sang. And it brings a lot to mind, a lot of questions to mind.
There's a lot we want to talk about here tonight, but first just impressions. Tomorrow, on that great front of the Capitol, Donald Trump will put his hand, I believe, on Lincoln's Bible and take the Oath of the Presidency of the United States. Ron, what do you think you're going to be thinking in that moment when he takes the Oath?
RON SUSKIND: I have a therapy session planned for that. [laughter] It's going to go a full hour. Maybe longer, maybe two, three hours. I feel like we should first hug and cry here, let's first do that. [laughter] I am debating whether I can watch it or not.
TOM ASHBROOK: Seriously?
RON SUSKIND: Yeah.
TOM ASHBROOK: You and John Lewis are going to be off the reservation.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. I know John, he's a buddy. I will watch it. I've worked over 30 years to document these times, and I will mark my reactions. I think it's going to be a moment that sears itself into people's memory. Where was I then? How did I feel? As a milepost of how I may feel a year from now, what I thought at that moment.
We were in a froth for the last year-and-a-half with all of this, certainly the last two months. As you say, and I think everyone here agrees, it's been an extraordinary time of confusion, I think, and of soul search. And it's all been words; he has no power. Until tomorrow. Which is stunning to think about. All of this froth of these incredible gyrations that have had the globe standing on a point of fear, from a man who does not yet have power.
TOM ASHBROOK: Even imminent power is power.
RON SUSKIND: No doubt. But tomorrow, he will become the world's most powerful man. And we will start a new chapter in the life of the country. I think that in times like this, throughout our history, and we've had very difficult moments in the long, unfinished experiment called America, I think it's fair to say that the line from Shakespeare echoes in any historian's mindset: "Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, bears a jewel in its forehead." Americans at our best find that jewel. And it will be incumbent upon people like many in this room to find the jewel in these years to come. Because they will be years that I think stand without ready precedent. And I'll think about all that tomorrow.
TOM ASHBROOK: Let me take that to our historian. Sweet are the uses of adversity. Heather, I want to dive in to history before we're finished here, but in the very present moment, tomorrow, when you see that hand on that Bible, the hand of this man, with Melania at his side, what kind of emotions, feelings do you expect? You can already see the tableau even before it's there on the television. You can pretty well imagine after all the inaugurations we've all seen. This time it's the orange-haired one. [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, I, too, am planning something else tomorrow. I'm going to hiking in the mountains. [applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Chappaqua?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And I will read about it. I will watch it afterward and I will read about it, so I know how it comes out. That's what historians do, we know how it comes out before we actually look at what happens. So I will find out how it comes out before I look at it.
But I am less concerned perhaps than many people in this room because of the historical precedents. Yes, tomorrow Donald Trump becomes the most powerful man in the world, but he is not the only actor in human history. And one of the things that has bothered me profoundly in my 30 years in this field is that it seemed to me that Americans took our democracy for granted, that they were vague about what mattered. Many of them didn't even understand the three branches of government. And I have felt for many years as if I was sort of preaching into the wind, that politics matters, that ground roots movements really matter.
And watching, for example, the rise of movement conservatism that Ron has studied so brilliantly, and recognizing that they were moving on the ground, and that progressive causes were not I found incredibly frustrating and upsetting. And watching this election happen almost, quite frankly, made me hang up my hat and quit. I really did. Actually, my kids asked me not to.
And the more that the days have played out and as we're watching progressive people and people who believe even in the small-c conservatism, the idea that this country matters, that democracy matters, that human self-determination matters, and that Americans have defined it in a particular way over a couple of centuries, and that is important, and we must hang on to that and fight for that.
I'm interested in what's happening tomorrow, but I'm kind of more interested in what's happening on Saturday across the country. And that's what I'm going to be watching. [applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: You are at some level welcoming a kind of swift kick in the pants.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, I would have preferred not to have it, but I'm trying to see the silver lining here. We have been here before. And this moment reminds me very much of the movement in 1854 that coalesced around fear that the government was being taken over by a group of rich people who were determined to control everybody else's lives. And that sparked people that many have heard of, like Abraham Lincoln, to say, This is not what America stands for. We've got to take the country back. And that does not mean you belong to my political party, it means you belong to my country. And when they did that, we recreated American democracy in an extraordinarily powerful way during the 1860s.
TOM ASHBROOK: Hold that thought, I want to come back to that, how we recreated out of a moment like that. Brian, your anticipation of the moment of Donald Trump assuming the presidency tomorrow, the moment.
BRIAN McGRORY: So when Ron says that the globe is standing on a point of fear, I'm not sure if he means the world or the newspaper. [laughter]
TOM ASHBROOK: How's that feel, Brian?
BRIAN McGRORY: I think it actually applies to both at this point. But I don't have the option not to watch. I'll also say I'm fascinated by it. I look forward to watching this tomorrow, because I think we are in a moment of extraordinary history, and we are in journalism allowed box seats here to see it unfold.
TOM ASHBROOK: Are you? Are you sure?
BRIAN McGRORY: That's actually a great point, Tom. Yes, I actually think we are, because I know that this President-elect has a reputation of being decidedly unfriendly to the news media, and yet I don't recall a President-elect being as open to the news media as he has been in this short 71 days. If you look at the number of interviews he's done with mainstream news organizations in this interim period, I would argue that that would exceed all of Barack Obama's interviews with mainstream media in his eight years as President.
TOM ASHBROOK: Do they all count, in Trump's case? Does walking through the lobby of Trump Tower count?
BRIAN McGRORY: No, I'm talking about sit-downs. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, a couple of times with the New York Times. Now, I'm not saying the fact that he's accessible to the news media argues that he's going to be a good President.
What I'm saying is, this is going to be fascinating to watch unfold. The people of America, parts of America that were having a hard time understanding seem to want this. The times in many ways invited this. The gross dysfunction of Washington over the last 20 years, the rampant inequality in America has led us not just to this moment, but to this man. I don't know what will become of it, but we're certainly going to have an extraordinary time watching it unfold.
TOM ASHBROOK: I want to come back to the press and what role it's likely to play.
I'm going to put this to each of you, but Ron, what in God's name is happening here? Not God's name, but what is this moment we're at? Brian's just begun to paint that picture, but what has brought us to this pass and this man as President of the United States.
RON SUSKIND: You know what Brian's alluding to is something that we've seen like a car skidding on its way to the telephone poll over three, four decades now. I'm old enough; I'm 57, I've been covering this sort of thing for 30 years, I think like Brian has. And you see steps along the path. You see Roger Ailes matching up with Dick Nixon, to take advantage of that great Lyndon Johnson/Dick Russell moment: "If we pass these civil rights bills, Lyndon, we'll lose the South for generations," and Johnson says, "Well, it's sometimes worth that when you do the right thing."
And of course, that grew the seedbed for a nativist program by Republicans to take advantage of that. A guy named Reed Irvine, remember Accuracy in Media, remember that guy in the '70s? He started to say everyone in the press is liberal, not appropriate, honest brokers. CBS and the New York Times. And it was hard to say no to that. All of a sudden you were having to protest against a bit of nonsense. To say that in what I put in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times is liberal because of my political beliefs is like accusing a doctor of malpractice, for goodness sake. I work hard to not do that.
But it was hard to wash that off you once he said it. You can see these step by step. You can see Ronald Reagan, some of the innovations there with Reagan.
TOM ASHBROOK: Innovations?
RON SUSKIND: Innovations, no doubt. An R&D lab for some of the stuff that we see now with Trump. Look, I covered the Clinton presidency, but also the George W. Bush presidency, where I wrote in the New York Times kind of a signature piece in the '04 period about the reality-based community. That was part of that Bush period.
They said, "People like you, Ron, are members of what we call the reality-based community." I said, "Well, if I'm a member of it, what is it?" They said, "You believe solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality." I'm like, "Yeah, I've got history behind me, empiricism, Age of Reason." "Oh, we know, we know. But that's not the way the world really works now. You see, we're an empire, and when we act, we create our own reality."
TOM ASHBROOK: How did Iraq turn out?
RON SUSKIND: Well, not so well. Precisely. But you start see us loosing ourselves in our public dialogues from some of the anchors, some of the foundations upon which informed consent tended to rest. And that has grown to create this entity, this Trump. In some ways, he was, Brian, inevitable. Who would it be, who could say. But someone like him would be. Because he is now utterly loosed from these boundaries, these anchors. Virtually nothing the man says has been factual.
BRIAN McGRORY: But yet, have you ever seen a President as obsessed with his press coverage?
RON SUSKIND: The love/hate he has with the press is extraordinary. I guess those relationships are strong, love/hate relationships. But he hates us, but he can't get enough of us. And then he's playing us often quite brilliantly against ourselves.
In a way, I don't like that line, "he's the President we deserve," but he in many ways is the President we were right to fear. And we are going to, in a way, be forced to call the question on democracy because of him in the years to come.
TOM ASHBROOK: Are we at that point? Does it feel like we're at the furthest extension of the elastic here? Heather suggests in a way perhaps that we are, that this is the wakeup call. This is the kick in the pants.
RON SUSKIND: Well, I might have thought that with George W. Bush, but maybe not. I covered the Bush presidency, three books on the Bush presidency. They were just lying right to reporters and laughing about it. They're saying, "It doesn't matter if we're caught in a lie; there's no accountability, there's no consequences." And of course, Trump now has taken that to the next stage. Will there be someone after Trump that tries to do this and take it to a next evolution? Who can say? But clearly now, I think people are waking up to the fact that democracy, as Heather says, is a participatory sport.
TOM ASHBROOK: Use it or lose it.
RON SUSKIND: Either way, exactly.
TOM ASHBROOK: Heather, take us back, then. Does this echo earlier times? Is this unique in its sense of, at the far end of the tether?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, those are separate questions. I want to start by just telling everybody that what Ron just said about his reality-based community quote, I have to laugh because that is verbatim what you wrote in 2004. You know that quotation by heart. And I know it by heart, too, because it was one of the most important quotations to come out of that entire decade. I was listening to him go through that and I thought, he did not miss a comma in that entire quotation. [laughter] And it's a whole paragraph long.
RON SUSKIND: I can do a page or two if you want. [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I'm not sure I can quote-check you on a whole page, but that was great to hear.
TOM ASHBROOK: NPR will fact-check the inaugural speech, too. [laughter]
RON SUSKIND: I'm with you, I'm with you.
BRIAN McGRORY: Is it plagiarism when you take your own work?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: No, it is not. He's clean. If I did it–
TOM ASHBROOK: Justified.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: But it seems to me that Trump is a fascinating moment, because he stretches back much farther than George W. Bush. I would argue that in fact the language that Trump uses – and this is different than who Trump is; Trump is a salesman – but the language that he uses is language that really came out of the New Deal, the people who opposed the New Deal, an opposition to the New Deal that was articulated in 1951 by William F. Buckley, Jr., who said, "Listen, if we actually embrace the ideas in the Enlightenment, that if we put facts in front of people and make arguments, they keep picking the New Deal." And in a few years he's going to say, "And they pick Eisenhower, which is also a bad thing."
So we can't actually rely on fact-based arguments. We have to simply indoctrinate people into the idea that, like the Ten Commandments, you cannot argue with what he called individualism or liberty, which is basically the idea that people should be able to do whatever they wanted to do – so, big businessmen could call the economic shots – and Christianity. Those two things are inviolable.
So you could start from that premise and you can argue about the details, but we must start there. But we don't actually have to adhere to any kind of factual argument because then we lose. What we need to do is create a narrative. And this goes back to the idea of creating your own reality-based community and the idea that you now have people standing in front of Congress and from the Senate trying to get confirmed for positions who clearly have no idea what those positions even entail, because they don't need to know what those positions entail, so long as they adhere to a correct ideology.
Well, Trump took this language, stripped the veneer off it and said, "I'm going to go get rid of the dog whistles and actually use the resorting to sexism and to racism and convince you that all of your tax dollars are going not to help people at the bottom of the economic spectrum, but rather people of color, or women who want abortions, or illegal immigrants," or any of these people that we've been accustomed to thinking of being as the "bad guys," really since the 1950s and the 1960s, and then of course into the '70s, and finally into Reagan with his welfare queen and Willie Horton during the George W. Bush administration. Trump picked that up incredibly effectively.
But the reason that I find him fascinating as a historian is that's not all he picked up. He is a snapshot, it seems to me, of America at the moment when people recognized, people who had been voting for the movement conservatives who took over the Republican Party, when they recognized that that rhetoric, that narrative had moved all the wealth in America dramatically upwards since 1980, which every set of statistics will tell you; so they had been sold a bill of goods. And at the same moment that they recognized they'd been sold this narrative, this bill of goods, they recognized that something really wrong had gone on with the economy. And Trump identified both of those things. He's a salesman.
And that brings up the other point, about his concern about the media. He's out for Trump; I mean, he's just selling Trump. He wants attention. Everyone talks about his mental state. He's a completely different kettle of fish than a politician. He is out for Trump.
But as a snapshot of history, of American history, it seems to me he's the moment when the rubber hits the road and ideology does not meet reality, and Americans look at it and go, "This is not the country we signed up for." And they work to take it back. [applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Trump to take it back.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Not Trump taking it back, but opposition to Trump taking it back.
TOM ASHBROOK: You've got that confidence that it's not that–
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Listen, I'm whistling in the dark, but someone's got to. [laughter]
TOM ASHBROOK: We'll come back. Brian, narrate your version of the story, of the march that led us to tomorrow.
BRIAN McGRORY: I did allude to it earlier. We've had 20, 30 years of virtual paralysis in Washington, with a couple of exceptions maybe around 9/11. We have government that just doesn't work for people. We have inequality that is at historic levels.
TOM ASHBROOK: Not least in this city.
BRIAN McGRORY: This is one of the worst cities in the world in terms of inequality of opportunity. And I think if you look around the Midwest where Trump really won this thing in a surprising fashion, these are people who just looked at Washington and said, "Whatever we have right now doesn't work." And they looked past the misogyny, they looked past the bigotry, they looked past all the obnoxious, thuggish, even piggish traits of this man and they said, "We're willing to take a flier on anything different because what we have seen simply does not work for the decrepit towns that we're in right now and our own family lives."
And so, when we talk about taking America back, I think we need to see this play out a little bit more before we realize what there is to take back.
TOM ASHBROOK: Are you sympathetic at some level, Ron, with exactly that American who looked out, wasn't feeling so good about their prospects at all, said, "The hell with this, I'm going Trump"?
RON SUSKIND: Look, I've traveled to these parts of America. In some ways, the divisions between the coastlines, mostly caught on the updraft of the global economy, and the wide middle is as dramatic as the North and the South prior to the Civil War. It's deep, these divides. This is predominantly in many cases, in many parts a left-behind country. So they feel. And I've been writing about left-behind characters for my whole life. And when you talk to them, you hear just what Brian was saying: "Look, all I know is what doesn't work. And the government is not redressing grievance in my case. So I want someone to just smash it. That's what I'm electing him for. The rest is for later or for never. But first, I've just got to smash what is."
TOM ASHBROOK: I've heard this again and again in the last year.
RON SUSKIND: You hear it. And it's hard to argue with them because almost as soon as you start to talk, they hear our voices and they go, "You're inaudible to me."
TOM ASHBROOK: And, "You're sitting pretty, I'm not. So shut up."
RON SUSKIND: You bet. "We're way up in line and people butt in front of me well before you." And I think that's at the core of these issues of inequality that we've seen growing over the last 40 years. And I think there's been a failure, frankly, in some cases of the Democratic Party to articulate how we can remedy this loss of a sense of possibility in most people's or many people's lives. You can't have 70% of the economy having no raise in 40 years while so much of other parts are advantaged.
Look, inequality is what crushes societies. Our sense of wellbeing is all comparative, that's what all the social scientists and psychologists say. And the gaps are so vast here that there are many people saying, "I want him to just bloody your nose, you, I'm pointing at you."
TOM ASHBROOK: "Let's just start there."
RON SUSKIND: "That's what I want and that's what I'm electing now." And it's quite personal, actually.
TOM ASHBROOK: Meaning?
RON SUSKIND: At one point during the Bush administration, a guy named Mark McKinnon, who was one of Bush's advisors, very skillful, sort of nimble fellow, said to me, "You think George W. Bush is an idiot." I said, "Actually, I don't think he's an idiot. I think he's incurious and he's a bully. I think he's hard to brief because I think he suffers from ADD."
"No, you do. And they do on the coastlines, and they do in some parts of Lower Manhattan near Wall Street. Let me just tell you: we don't care. You guys are outnumbered two/two-and-a-half-to-one by the big beating heart of the middle. And you know what they love about him? They love the way he points, the way he walks, that kind of W walk, with the arms down, that kind of sphincter thing he does with his hips. [laughter] And they'll never read the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Boston Globe. They just like the way he gives them a sense of confidence. But here's what they don't like. They don't like you. So keep attacking him. Every time you do, our numbers go up."
Now, just think about that quote from 2004 and how Trump takes that to a next level. It's deeply personal. And for people to say they can't even vote in their interest– look, I quoted Tom Frank's book often, What's the Matter with Kansas? And folks out there say, "So you're telling me that I don't know my own self-interest? Let me tell you my selfinterest. My self-interest is in bloodying your nose, is my self-interest. How's that feel? And it's not born of irrationalism, it's born of my emotional needs to feel like I'm making progress in my life by stopping you, and getting a government that somehow recognizes me. Now we can negotiate. And then I'll decide whether I want to burn your building down, that's my next choice. Are we ready to talk now?"
That's kind of what's happening here. And it's really a fear-based narrative that's quite shattering to our complacencies.
TOM ASHBROOK: Brian, you're rising to that.
BRIAN McGRORY: The many things I didn't expect to think about tonight, it was George W. Bush's sphincter. [laughter]
TOM ASHBROOK: That's a bonus.
BRIAN McGRORY: But I do appreciate that.–
RON SUSKIND: We can do a three-part series on that.
BRIAN McGRORY: I'm a little rattled, I'll admit.
RON SUSKIND: –Presidential Sphincters: An Investigation. I did it in 2006.
BRIAN McGRORY: During the campaign, the mainstream media, meaning conventional media, believed that Donald Trump was a perfect foil for Hillary Clinton in this campaign, that if she showed up at debates and she acted as competent as she is, if she highlighted the experience she has, if she exuded the kind of moderate tone that she has, that everything would be fine. And that seemed to be her strategy.
In the end, what I think we all realized was that Hillary Clinton was a perfect foil for Donald Trump. She was everything that a good part of this country simply did not want anymore. He would have had a much, much bigger problem running about a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren.
RON SUSKIND: No doubt.
TOM ASHBROOK: Or a Joe Biden.
BRIAN McGRORY: No doubt about it.
TOM ASHBROOK: Heather, our system puts a lot of faith in the native wisdom of the people. The people, not by a majority, but under our rules, have just elected Donald Trump. Do you look at that decision and say there's a kind of wisdom there?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It's an interesting way to put it. Isn't the central question, really, how we think about democracy and the way society should work?
TOM ASHBROOK: That's what I'm trying to get at, I guess.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: That is, there is some level at which what Ron is saying is a reflection of an idea, really, that has always been around, that the people who should run society are the very few educated, usually white, usually men, who are going to tell the rest of us how to run our lives. And that stands in stark contrast to another concept of a working society, and that is the idea that people are driven to think about the world in such a way that it will benefit them. And that democracy works best when everybody is able to have a say in their own government and the way government works.
And in a way, those two ways of looking at the world have always been at war in America. And in many societies, I guess – I only study America – as well. And that what people have reacted to this round is saying, "Wait a minute, we don't want a society where only a few people at the top are telling us the rest of us how to behave." And that's a reflection not simply on the Republican Party, but also on the Democratic Party.
And I think a lot of Trump voters were angrier at what they saw as Democrats and academics and journalists and people telling them what they had to be concerned about than the reality of the fact that they're not making any money.
That being said, there is a deeper problem, I think, personally, in our education system that so many people could not get past the rhetoric, past the emotional story and look at the reality of their lives and demand politicians who would answer that.
TOM ASHBROOK: Where does that leave us in terms of your confidence going forward?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I love how I always end up being the one
interpreted as being the confident one. I always end up with these things that everyone's like–
TOM ASHBROOK: I did hear you suggest that we would rise to a challenge. It doesn't always go that way. We've seen other countries in other times where we come to a point like this and things keep going.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I believe, every other day, I think that's what's going to happen. But every second day, I look at the fact that we look so much like we did in the 1850s when a lot of people had been going on with their lives, not paying attention to the fact that the entire government was being taken over by a bunch of slaveowners. And when they finally woke up to that fact, they fought back, took the country back over, gave us the Gettysburg Address and rededicated America to the concept that all men are created equal. It worked for me. And I kind of hope that that's where we're going again.
And I actually have confidence not simply in progressive voters, but in a number of people I know who voted for Trump, who voted for Trump not because they hate America or they hate women or they hate African Americans or that they hate immigrants, but because they hated the fact that they felt that they no longer had say over their government, and they were determined to take that back.
Now, if you follow Twitter, Evan McMullin out of Utah, who would ever have thought that I would be retweeting Evan McMullin out of Utah? And there we are. There's a number of people coming together to redefine America as the place where everybody has a say in their own self-determination. And that is, after all, what we stand for.
TOM ASHBROOK: What about the darker fears that are out there, Brian? People have been talking about Sinclair Lewis lately and his book, It Can't Happen Here, 1935. And the scenario is that Huey Long or a Huey Long-like figure defeats FDR. It came out in '35, I think, I think the same year that Huey Long was assassinated. Here's a passage from that book where things are going further off the rails, Sinclair Lewis imagining the US going the way of Mussolini or Hitler's countries at the time.
Why are you so afraid of the word "Fascism," Doremus? Just a word, just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours. Not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini – like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days – and have 'em really RUN the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. 'Nother words, have a doctor who won't take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!
This is Sinclair Lewis thinking about our country in the '30s. Do you see a real risk of the darker side of Trump and the folks who have rallied behind him going further off the rails? Not that this is certainly off the rails, but here we are, a pretty giddy moment.
BRIAN McGRORY: I do believe in the wisdom of crowds; maybe the OJ Simpson jury aside. [laughter] In this case, it's convoluted because the crowd actually said Hillary Clinton. It was tailored in the system we have to allow for Donald Trump. But the majesty of democracy in the United States will not allow this to go off the rails, to use your phrase. I think we could see a rebound here. I think this could be our darkest moment.
What worries me– I'm trying to express confidence here, but here's what really worries me. What worries me is a Republican Congress and a conservative Supreme Court. And all the stars are lined up for some real damage to be done here. The truth is that when Trump was first elected, when we go back to November, I actually thought there's a scenario here in which this may not be bad. I had to console the newsroom. We could see our first post-partisan President in many decades.
TOM ASHBROOK: Mixing up the lines.
BRIAN McGRORY: We could have as many Democrats in the Cabinet as we do
Republicans. We could have him telling the Freedom Caucus on the Hill to take a hike. Republicans would be as frustrated by him as Democrats, and he could take that opportunity with a massive infrastructure program, perhaps centered on urban public schools, and really do this country some good. It's been extraordinarily disappointing ever since when we end up with a Cabinet filled with white male billionaires, who, as someone alluded to earlier, barely seem to know the departments that they're running and in couple of cases wanted to get rid of the department; at least in the case of Rick Perry.
All of that said, I believe in the wisdom of crowds and I think that this democracy will survive. The stars are lined up for some really difficult moments.
TOM ASHBROOK: You believe that it won't go off the rails, that the majesty of American democracy will turn it around. Describe how that happens.
BRIAN McGRORY: Well, it's not far from how Heather described. The public will not stand for this. There was a really interesting Atul Gawande essay in the New Yorker earlier in January about how even when this nation's massive institutions fail us – and we've seen a diminishing effect by these institutions, the major parties, the Congress, over the last 20 years or so – we are still a good, reasonable, sensible, logical people. And
the smaller institutions in our society will not allow for a dictator-like figure in Washington to control the lives that we live.
TOM ASHBROOK: I think back to New Year's when Trump tweeted out a New Year's greeting, which was something like, "Happy New Year's to all my enemies who just can't get over how I win and win and all their losses." And I thought to myself, from the small portions of– my dad was on the school board back in my hometown. If the superintendent of schools had put out a letter like that, they would have had his butt out of that chair in one week. They would said this man is not suited to be superintendent of our schools. This is the President of the United States and he tweets this, and we go right on. So I wonder about this.
BRIAN McGRORY: He couldn't get past the HR office of most major companies right now given his actions. [laughter] He's breaking every mold and every rule.
TOM ASHBROOK: Brian imagined a hopeful scenario here. And maybe this feels less hopeful now. Do you still see one, Ron? Do you see a way in which this could– look at it in the most Trumpian way that you can for a minute. Or somebody who will break China–
RON SUSKIND: [in Trump voice:] I love what you're doing there, Tom. [laughter] You're fabulous.
TOM ASHBROOK: I give it right back. [in Russian accent:] Let's go horseback riding. [laughter]
RON SUSKIND: What's he doing there [with his hands]? I don't know what that's about.
TOM ASHBROOK: It's twirly stuff.
RON SUSKIND: My wife won't let me do this in the house, so I have to do it out. [laughter]
TOM ASHBROOK: We love what you're doing, Ron.
RON SUSKIND: It's like you have Nixon, Eldridge Cleaver and Trump. That's the Trump hand.
TOM ASHBROOK: It's almost Papal, but not.
RON SUSKIND: It's a funny little, the fingers.
TOM ASHBROOK: It is, it's short. [laughter]
RON SUSKIND: My hopeful scenario is aligning with Brian's, actually. Trump has, remember, destroyed the Republican Party as well. There's not a Republican Party that certainly existed 10 or 15 years ago.
TOM ASHBROOK: So destroyed that it controls almost all the state houses and both Houses of Congress and the White House.
RON SUSKIND: Right, it's true, I hear you. But the fact is, they are deeply divided. He slaughtered the whole stage of people. He's really sort of a maverick, but without thought behind the positions, mostly. But think about tariffs to protect manufacturing jobs, that's a Democratic position, prior to the Clintons. He picked and chose rather nimbly here across the traditional party divisions. That provides an avenue for opportunity.
If his narcissism is so deep and profound that he starts to feel the heat of not having delivered on his bold promises, especially to that constituency in the middle, you can see him potentially hustling across the traditional divides, throwing people out of this window and that. I mean, I think he's going to run this thing a little like he ran Celebrity Apprentice, where he does everything in public. He'll fire many of his Cabinet members in very public ways, there's no doubt about that.
TOM ASHBROOK: No doubt.
RON SUSKIND: [in Trump voice:] "You're fired. You're out." He'll do it where you can see it, that's reality show values. But there is an opportunity for him to shatter the stasis and deep divisions.
TOM ASHBROOK: You still see that, despite the Cabinet that he's named?
RON SUSKIND: I see it as marginal and modest possibility. The dark side, if you want me to do that part–
TOM ASHBROOK: Okay.
RON SUSKIND: Sorry, my wife's like, "Try to be more hopeful." It's hard these days. I read a lot about foreign affairs during the Bush era, and talked to leaders of foreign countries. They're feeling very entrepreneurial right now.
TOM ASHBROOK: Yeah, opportunity knocks.
RON SUSKIND: Yeah. And I can see them coming up with strategies to create crises in America. In some ways, Trump is ideal in that he's so easily drawn into crisis. Some of that is part of his whole sort of architecture; he's a guy who creates crisis out of nothing in many cases, out of words. But if he can't deliver for this angry constituency of his, he probably will move to crisis and distraction, as some dictatorial types do, to keep that crisis moving again and again – you can't get your bearings, you can't get your feet on the ground.
And others may help him along those lines. Remember the whole al Qaeda model was, "They can never defeat a country of our might." But if they attacked us in a certain way, they could have us overreact and show them our principles–
TOM ASHBROOK: The Single move.
RON SUSKIND: Exactly Tom. –that are really the source of our real power, these rights that are inalienable, that they're really brittle, that they're matters of convenience, that they're easily shattered. That's the goal of many countries, including Putin, frankly. And Trump is just ideal to prove their case on that. And that's what I really fear. I fear we're going to end up in a place of crisis for all the reasons that have happened, like 9/11 and–
TOM ASHBROOK: Despite all his criticism of the endless war.
RON SUSKIND: Absolutely. And he will react in ways that will leave us dizzy, using the tool kit he's been using up to now. That's my dark side.
TOM ASHBROOK: Is there any way that he could maneuver with this Republican Congress to actually go for these unorthodox solutions?
RON SUSKIND: Yeah!
TOM ASHBROOK: Well, really? Is Paul Ryan going to work with him to do non-
Republican, big solutions that break the norms, that break the lines? Or will they strand so all he has left is executive authority, which leans toward crisis even more.
RON SUSKIND: That's the big question right now. You can see Trump with a set of choices here: Does he abide by the already acquired Republican constituency and orthodoxy of the Paul Ryans? Or does he go, "That's not working and I'm going to go in a different direction. That means I may bump off some of these Republican leaders. But have them try to challenge me."
It's about power and its exercise. And it's going to be I think a struggle in this opening period where Trump tries to assert primacy. And some of the Republicans are saying, "Look, we already have a playbook, just check off the boxes" And I actually don't think he's going to do that. I don't.
TOM ASHBROOK: Because he'll feel too bound if he does that.
RON SUSKIND: Exactly. He'll lose so much of essentially the source of what gives him his power, which is surprise.
You know, Trump actually occurs on television like sports.
TOM ASHBROOK: Occurs?
RON SUSKIND: Occurs. You can't keep your eyes off him because he occurs right there on the screen. He knows how this works. He's off script all the time. It's like you go to the hockey game for the fight; you can't stop watching it. And he's going to keep using that. He knows how that works.
So he's going to keep, I think, fueling surprise, moving against expectation, creating these moments of havoc, often quite personal to his opponents. And some of them, I'll tell you, will be within the Republican Party soon enough. Then we'll get to a point of where the
Republican-led Congress says, "Look, let's let him drift out and off the edge and put Mike Pence in as President."
TOM ASHBROOK: What does that mean exactly, mechanically?
RON SUSKIND: Mechanically, I think that Trump is so far off the grid on many things that end up in legal proceedings that he may stand in the crosshairs of conviction, legal conviction, of being convicted of crimes or being involved in criminal activity, or activity that ends with impeachment. And I think there may, a year from now, be lots of Republicans who say, "Great. He did his turn, he created the disruption. Now let's put our man Pence in. He's been a governor, he knows how the government works. He's our guy. And let him be the President." That's another scenario which I think is a possible scenario for the up ahead.
TOM ASHBROOK: Heather, what are you thinking here? And if you've got historical parallels or enlightening tales, tell us stories from the past to warm us by the fire. [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I do. We have been here before. And nobody ever remembers this. Where we are right now looks very much like, believe it or not, the Benjamin Harrison administration, which I'm sure all of you know by heart.
TOM ASHBROOK: It's just what I was thinking. [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I know! I hate to talk about him because everybody already knows so much about him.
RON SUSKIND: When's that movie coming out, The Benjamin Harris Story? [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: The Garfield Story ended up being a big deal.
RON SUSKIND: Garfield, now that's a–
TOM ASHBROOK: Tell us, we're all ears.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: So Benjamin Harrison was elected in the Electoral College, he lost by 100,000 popular votes. And he decided that he had been put in place by God. And even though in fact there were machinations that made him President, and he really should not have been President, he decided that he and his Republican majority in the House and the Senate, and the Supreme Court– a Supreme Court that nobody even remembers the name of the chief justice of that Supreme Court. Does anybody happen to know that one? Nope, not Salmon Chase. It was Melville Fuller. It's known as the
Lochner Court, which is interesting because we've erased it entirely from our memory.
But they gave us an incredible slew of pro-business, anti-individual legislation. They declared an income tax unconstitutional. They went In re Debs saying the government could essentially hunt down an individual. They gave us Plessy v. Ferguson. They gave us the Insular Cases. They gave us all those cases that all got overturned or forgotten because they were so out there, so off the grid.
But what he did and what the Republicans did under Harrison is they pushed their agenda so extraordinarily and so extraordinarily hard that they lost not only the Democrats who didn't like them, they lost not only the anarchists who didn't like them, they lost most moderate Republicans, who said this is not a democracy any longer when you've got one small group putting themselves in power and creating a world in which the rich get everything.
And you think about that date, that's 1888. By 1890, they've wiped African American voting off the map, largely thanks to the Mississippi constitution and thanks to the constitutions that are adopted all over the Northern states to make sure that poor people and black people can't vote. By 1896, they have basically blood in the streets, guaranteeing that nobody but Republicans can vote. Sounds like we're going in a really bad direction? By 1901, we have Teddy Roosevelt in the presidency, and we have the beginning of the progressive era.
So you look at that scenario in 1896 and you say, we are going to hell in a hand basket. We've got international uprisings. We've got people being assassinated by anarchists all over America, including William McKinley, who's going to go in 1901. And you think there's no way we're going to come out of this. This is going to end up being essentially an oligarchy.
And within a decade, we have the progressive era, one of the most progressive moments in American history.
TOM ASHBROOK: Are the elements that let that turn around then extant now?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: The thing that I find fascinating is the extraordinary level of voter suppression and gerrymandering right now, and the idea that you're basically destroying the popular vote; we're taking the vote away and suppressing the vote all over the country. And you think, well, there's just no way to come back from that, right? Except there was in the late 19th century when people said, "Wait a minute, what happened to the concept of democracy?"
And again, if you look at the vote in 1888, 1892 and 1896, you think there's just no way that there's ever going to be anything other than a full, basically oligarchal government.
And it turns around because most people say, "That's not what we want, we believe in American principles."
So there is the mechanics that's the problem, was a problem in the last election, which was such a problem with the gerrymandering especially in the swing states and in the redmap states. That is a problem that looks very similar as it is today.
But crucially, I think the other thing that happened in the late 19th century, and that is waiting to happen today, and was picked up by Trump and by Bernie Sanders, is the fact that politicians began to articulate a vision of America that people could get behind. They began to talk about a narrative in which individuals should be able to rise, should have a voice in their own government in a way that they had not talked about America really since Abraham Lincoln.
And the reclaiming of an American narrative, of a land in which people should have selfdetermination and the land should actually be a land of hope for people resonated with regular folks, regular Republicans at the time, Democrats, and even anarchists, who would say, "I can get behind those ideas. I want to be part of that." And this is, again, a magical moment when people in the media will, I hope, and politicians will turn around and say, "Wait a minute, let's articulate a vision as opposed to slicing and dicing an electorate simply to get votes on a ballot. Let's articulate a vision that America can get behind to reclaim its concept of itself as an important figure in world history."
TOM ASHBROOK: And you believe the United States population today has the same software in there somewhere that would respond in this way, as they did 100-plus years ago?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I think human beings have that software.
TOM ASHBROOK: Well, they went for many, many thousands of years without pulling that off so well.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And we have a lot in our DNA. I wish we had not cut back on public education the way we have. That, I think, is the elephant in the room.
[applause] But we're doing our best to take it back, right?
TOM ASHBROOK: Yeah. We've got a lot of questions from the audience and I want to bring some out here in just a second. Brian, you brought up inequality up a couple of times. Inequality's very interesting to me here because Trump made a lot of hay on it, even though he's a billionaire. I observed Democrats, while they talked a lot about it, and Bernie Sanders in particular maybe in a unique, a lot other Democrats, there's a kind of– people got accustomed to the fact that somewhere out there, there were people not doing so well, but it didn't require an emergency action because they were doing fine. I think at some level, there were Democrats who felt that way.
How do we turn inequality around? Which comes first here? Is there some political backlash that turns it around in another way? Can we turn the cart without addressing inequality? Is inequality the thing that ends up being the fuel for yet another turn of the cart? Trump used it for his revolution, whatever you want to call. How do we address it? So many people have such a vested interest in it. Congress has been, as you say, kind of stuck in ineffectual mode for a long time, partly, it seems to me, because it's paralyzed by protecting the interests of those who are doing quite well now. How do you change that, if changing that is part of changing the politics of the country?
BRIAN McGRORY: The question could also be asked, can Trump change inequality? He had a bizarre argument with the public during this campaign. He talked about inequality– if you look at it, his message and the Sanders/Warren messages weren't that different. And they even used some of the same words – the system is rigged, the system is rigged against people like you. And Trump had a message on top of that message, and that is, "I know how to win." He'd constantly be talking about – and I bet you can do a beautiful imitation – winning, winning, winning.
RON SUSKIND: That wasn't bad though, winning, winning. You've got to get the hands. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: So the question is, can Trump, will Trump use something like a massive infrastructure program that could put people who don't have college educations to work, could put Middle America to work, and could actually be honed in on things like public schools in this country? And could that be a vehicle to try to break inequality? It doesn't look like appointing a Cabinet filled with middle-aged and older white billionaires is the way to solve inequality. So there are some real reservations over whether his interest was sincere in this. But who knows?
Getting to one of Ron's earlier points, the way that Trump could actually win Washington is a way that I think he's probably innately capable[sic] of, and that is to simply act like an adult. He did it very briefly when the Republicans tried to gut the Ethics Office in the middle of the night, and he sent out a tweet saying that it was ill-advised. And he spun that around immediately.
If he were to act like an adult and he would bring both parties together, I think he could make a lot of headway on issues like inequality. But I don't think that it's in his mettle to be able to do that.
TOM ASHBROOK: Ron?
RON SUSKIND: There are opportunities in his hands. In this divided era, what works is
"Nixon to China," is to move against type. And Trump has a whole array of Nixon-toChina moves, especially on inequality. We talked a lot about narrative. Trump is an agent of an ancient narrative, of the prince who leaves the palace, walks among the people, and then returns, often to burn the palace down. But he does that; he leaves the golden coastlines where he has literally his own set of golden temples. He walks among the people, says, "I am your voice." He has agency here. And with agency comes opportunity.
And one of the questions is with him having this acute desire to please people, in a way – and this is part of his dynamic – certainly the people that have said, "You're our man." Whether he will be advised by wise agents, "Look, here is a way you can break from the current set of stale policy options" – which are pretty stale – "and win worlds. And your audience, your Q-ratings will skyrocket."
But I'm, indeed, similarly sort of dispirited by the Cabinet choices. But ultimately he will now act. It'll be his decision. And he rules and operates from the gut, like W, by fiat, and surprise is his friend.
So there are opportunities here.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Healthcare. I don't expect to see it, but, man, if that man pulled single-payer healthcare out of his sleeve, that is an absolute game changer.
And the trick to Trump is, before he does anything you've got to go with "you're not the boss of me." He'll do whatever people don't expect him to do, just to prove he can.
RON SUSKIND: Exactly right.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: So I've been watching that one.
TOM ASHBROOK: Question from the audience here in inequality: Yes, inequality's a major crisis in our country, but how does the fact that the average Trump voter earns $72,000" – fact-check me, please, somebody; I think it's last year – "jibe with the theory of disaffected voters bringing him to power?"
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Is that directed to me?
TOM ASHBROOK: Yes, Heather.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: So there's a bunch of things going on with Trump voters right now and the way people are slicing and dicing what happened in this last election. We haven't at all talked about the Comey letter or Russia, of course, which we simply can't talk about this election without talking about those things. And I think maybe this is a better question to go to Brian, in the sense that it seems to me– I study ideas, is really what I look at, is where the rubber meets the road between ideas and reality. And it seems to me that the people who voted for Trump, yes, some of them, for sure, were people economically at the bottom of the scale, but more of them were ones who had bought the movement conservative narrative, that their tax dollars were going to lazy African Americans, to women who were wanting stuff; people who wanted free stuff.
And when I look at Trump voters, I look at people who in fact are not at the bottom of the scale. They're the ones who are not getting the subsidies for the Affordable Care Act. They're paying their own healthcare. And so their premiums went up. And they look at the fact that they're paying taxes for somebody who's making less money than they are, and they're barely making it on their own.
So I actually think that 70,000 thing is not that much of a surprise. If you look at those people and if you also look at sort of Middle America who resents that their tax dollars, it seems to them, are going to people of color or to people they think are getting something for nothing. That's the narrative that they've been sold really since the 1950s; certainly since the 1980s, and that harkens way back to Reconstruction. So that really doesn't surprise me that much at all.
TOM ASHBROOK: Can we talk about how Trump is kept honest for a minute? And that brings us I guess to the media in no small part. We were upstairs earlier and they've got the mural up there that was in what used to be FDR's swimming pool, and then was JFK's swimming pool. And his dad had the big mural of St. Croix painted there so he could feel comfortably at home in his Kennedy style. And that's where the press room is now in the White House. And we're hearing that Trump may close it down, shut it down, move it out and be rid of all that.
I want to look forward, but let's look back for a second because a member of the audience says, "With all the pundits, talking heads, et cetera, and the media, why did no one see how divided this country is?" And looking at the Trump victory, this fellow ponderer tonight says, "I blame the media." Did you elect Donald Trump? Did we? Did the media fail? We hear a lot of this – "You didn't do your job, you didn't vet the man. And now look, he's President."
BRIAN McGRORY: So let me push back on that a little bit. We ran a series in the Globe–
TOM ASHBROOK: When I say "you," I mean, we. [laughter]
BRIAN McGRORY: I know you're right behind me, Tom. [laughter] We ran a series in the Globe in 2015 that was actually called "Divided Nation." We spread reporters out across America and we looked at the many, many divisions that exist in this country. Like I said, ten parts, by a guy named Michael Kranish, a incredibly terrific reporter.
We put Trump through a traditional filter at the Globe. We looked at his bankruptcies in
Atlantic City. Matt Viser, our White House reporter–
TOM ASHBROOK: Also terrific.
BRIAN McGRORY: –had him – he's wonderful – had him fondling women at a beauty pageant before that tape ever came out with Billy Bush. We looked at his record at the Wharton School. We treated him early on like a real candidate; we did not want to get caught up in the outrage of the day, the ridiculous Trump statement that I largely think was intentional by him to take attention away from his own background.
It's a complicated country, and it's a complicated news media. It's too easy in retrospect to say it's the news media's fault. I think there's a lot of blame to go around.
TOM ASHBROOK: But what about the charge, then and now, that by coming to Trump in pretty much the ordinary and familiar, traditional forms of news-gathering and delivery, the media is normalizing an abnormal President-elect, and soon President?
BRIAN McGRORY: I do not think that, first of all, I don't think we're normalizing his behaviors. But he was a candidate for the United States Presidency, and he was attracting votes. That makes him a legitimate candidate. And we have to cover him with some traditional filters in some conventional ways. We don't have a choice. If he's attracting support from the public, then we have to take that seriously.
The key for us is– and the word normalization has been used quite frequently since Election Day. No, we cannot just start to assimilate the bigotry, the misogyny, kind of the antipathy to facts. We cannot accept that. We need to call him out on it. I think largely we're doing a reasonably good job at that.
TOM ASHBROOK: What happens going forward if, let's say, the press is tossed out of the White House. I don't know what kind of access there's going to be. You point out there's been a fair amount, but it's been unorthodox access in which it's difficult to ascertain real facts or solid positions. And Trump obviously end runs. He uses social media. Whether he uses it or not, it's out there every which way. The power of the press to be the gatekeeper or the truth-teller seems much diminished in this welter of assertions flying everywhere, not necessarily facts. What's the role of the press in the Trump era?
BRIAN McGRORY: Look, it would be an awful message if he were to shut down the press office in the West Wing, it would be a terrible message. In reality, what that office really gets us isn't a whole ton. Ron, you probably worked out of there. I worked out of there during the Clinton administration. It gets you access to the press secretary's office and his two deputies, the lower press office. But the message would be horrendous.
The truth is, many people believe that what Donald Trump really wanted to be, actually many believe he just wanted to open up his own conservative television network when he lost this campaign. As President, the belief is that he doesn't want to be a traditional, conventional President. He wants to be a chairman of the board. That would mean that he would have very powerful Cabinet secretaries who would actually run the government. We have seen that probably is not the case with the selections that he's made.
But the government, the federal government is a big, sprawling deal. Reporters are resourceful people. We can get the information we need. If you go back to Nixon and Deep Throat, he was with the FBI. There are any number of sources across the government that will lend the news media a helping hand because they know we need it right now.
TOM ASHBROOK: Have we floated away though, Heather, from the time, if it's not the reality-based era anymore necessarily, have we floated away from a time when the press can roll out facts that don't jibe with what the President is saying and then use that as a kind of lever to change the President's direction or to upbraid or call out the President? Does he have a following that no longer cares and they can turn to a million social media streams and find other views, other perspectives, other facts?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, yes, that's always a problem nowadays, for sure. But there's always a group of about 30% of the American population that's going to follow somebody, anybody, one way or another. There's always that group that can't be moved ever. What matters is the other 70.
And one of the things that I found fascinating about the media this time around is that the media's always had a problem really since the turn of the 20th century when it decided it was going to be impartial, because they report the news; that's what they're supposed to do, right? But there's no mechanisms for dealing with somebody who is lying to your face. And we found that with Joe McCarthy and never really came up, until this media cycle, with a way to say, "This person is lying." Which is new. And you could watch it happen if you study the way people talked about stuff.
So that's one way the media has changed. The other thing that I think is absolutely fascinating though is that this moment requires a new set of voices. And I've watched with fascinating the rise of Teen Vogue, for example, the rise of women's blogs, the rise of the voices of people of color who previously really couldn't get a foothold in the traditional media for a number of institutional reasons who are suddenly now movers and shakers, but whose followings are individual and whose followings are on the Internet.
And one of the things that I think is fascinating for you guys is how older publications manage to incorporate those new voices and retain their old constituencies that are paying the bills. Because it's an entirely new group of people. They grew up with the Internet, they grew up with different experiences. They are living in a different America than the rest of us are. I'm guessing we're all over 50 on this stage. If you're under 30, you're living in a different America than we are.
And they're the ones whose voices are the ones to be following, especially if you've been following the Teen Vogue thing, women got Donald Trump way before men did. Because we have all been in a room with Donald Trump. And you could see it. The lights are in my eyes, so I can't see, but I bet every woman in this place is nodding. And if early on, if you had conversations with men and they were saying, "What are you talking about," you're like, "Please listen to me." And they didn't get it. I have a friend who still doesn't get it.
And those voices called that out really early. And now they're getting power. I didn't even know Vogue had a teen section. And all of a sudden I'm like reading it every day.
TOM ASHBROOK: Who'da thunk it?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Who'da thunk it, right? I read it before my
daughter did. But that's a change that I think is going to play out over the next four years, because those voices get this moment because of its weird misogyny and bigotry in a way that I think older voices don't get.
TOM ASHBROOK: Is the press old hat now? Is it past its utility date? The Press, as we've understood it? How does it function, the Fourth Estate, in this social media age with a master manipulator of that at the top now? And all these questions abroad in the land about its credibility?
RON SUSKIND: We are all nostalgic for the days of Walter Cronkite and Scotty Reston of the New York Times, when there was an arbiter, somebody who said, "That voice doesn't have a place at the table, and that's the way it is tonight." In 22-and-a-half minutes you knew what you were supposed to be interested in.
That is over. And now we're living in a wildly bifurcated and shattered media environment of slivers. What does that mean? That means that the moments of both crisis and opportunity are in fact moments of crisis. The only time in which we're all sort of unified and looking at the same instant are crisis to crisis. And those are moments of opportunity as well as often moments of pain.
And I think what we're going to find here are opportunities for all parts of the media at moments of crisis. It's a shame that we are at this place, that both in terms of the government functioning and, in a way, the media being at a place of centrality in some unified way, it's simply between the tent poles of crisis.
Right now though, it is very difficult for my buddies at the Globe and the Times and elsewhere, because their audience is often a preach-to-the-choir audience. And it's just hard to get to that other audience, short of crisis, frankly.
TOM ASHBROOK: But even in the crisis, do you think you do or will have more access to a bigger audience if there's a sense of crisis? Or do people just stay dispersed?
BRIAN McGRORY: I'll speak for the Globe, and I also see it at other major newspapers across the country. We're seeing record traffic right now on our website. We're seeing a surge in people who are subscribing to us, both online and in print. The Times is seeing it even more so. Life is a big boomerang; people are now coming back in this moment of crisis. Maybe it's more uncertainty than crisis right now for the country. But they want, they crave real information.
Heather's point was very well taken about the whole notion of impartiality in the news media. The flip side to being impartial is offering false parity. And I think that there are many news organizations in this country that suffered from that in this campaign. In other words, Donald Trump says something utterly ridiculous, so then they go to Hillary Clinton and look at something ridiculous she said, even though, just focus on what was really ridiculous.
TOM ASHBROOK: Question for you, also from the audience: Do you think, Ron has spoken to this, but do you think the bureaucratic realities of daily governing will temper Trump's tendency to be unpredictable? Newsman?
BRIAN McGRORY: I can't see anything that would temper his inclination to be unpredictable. [laughter] I think that's the only predictable part to him. We just posted a short story on our website today, BostonGlobe.com, that the only predictable part about his tweeting habits is when he tweets. Right now, it's been around six in the morning, give or take an hour. Otherwise, there is no telling what he's going to do, what he's going to say, when he's going to say it.
TOM ASHBROOK: Here's a question, again from the audience. I think it speaks to a bigger question. What does each of you want or expect to happen on Saturday? Of course, this is the great day of the planned women's protest in Washington. Speak to Saturday and beyond in terms of, are we entering, might we be, an era of much more active public protests? You've alluded to this, Heather. What do you expect to happen this weekend? And what does it portend?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, personally, I think that, yes, we are entering a new moment of protest. And I think it's fascinating that women have jumped to the front on this one. I think that they will be a deciding factor in the way the country goes forward from now.
But I also think this speaks to the larger issue of the fact that places like the Globe and the Washington Post and the Guardian and the real central newspapers have gotten so much more traffic than they've had before, and that is what we started out by saying, and that's that people are paying attention again. Facts are cool. I mean, for a long time, really if you think about it, really starting with Star Wars in 1977, the idea of America as sort of a mythic land where the actual facts didn't matter very much really obtained right through the George W. Bush White House, where nobody lived in the reality-based community, which has led us to Donald Trump.
And there was a time when it was kind of cool to not want to care about the government or economics or banking. I will never forget asking a lecture hall of students if they wanted to know more during the credit default swap crisis. And I just explained credit default swaps and someone said, "Could you explain what a bank actually is?" [laughter] And I thought, oh, my God. And I did. But it wasn't cool.
And now all of a sudden, people want to know history, they want to know facts. They want to know the role of the ethics advisor. Did you even know there was an ethics advisor two months ago? People care about that stuff again. And once they start caring, and once they start understanding how it works, they start calling their Congressmen and Congresswomen, and they start complaining, and they start marching, and they start, I hope, participating in the political process.
And once regular people start participating in the political process again, as they did in the 1850s, as they did in the 1890s, as they did in the 1930s, the American government swings back from a pole of extremes where the wealthy seem to control everything, to a democracy that serves people at the bottom much more effectively than it does at other times. And we are ripe for that pendulum to swing back to the opposite pole.
If I had to guess based on history, not on my feelings at the very moment, but on history, where we are going, I would say in the next ten years we will be in the most profound period of progressive government in American history. [applause] You heard it here first.
TOM ASHBROOK: You heard it here. Not to second guess, I don't, but what do you think, Ron? Democracy in the streets and pretty soon it's all progressive America.
RON SUSKIND: I remain hopeful. The key features of this democracy are its selfcorrectly qualities. It's always been what has made us who we are. The swings have been dramatic through our history. At one point we were slaughtering each other in the 1860s, and we rebound. The notion of America being an exceptional place is born in this idea of the people are the sovereign. That's the great historical shift here. Power must answer to this rabble, the people.
TOM ASHBROOK: This rabble, right here.
RON SUSKIND: This rabble, this one here. [laughter] And I am thoroughly confident that in time – it could be sooner or later – but in time the response will be dramatic. And a calling of the question on so many things that have been a slow sort of progression over many years– and I know the frog in the pot, apparently the frogs jump out of the pot, but the idea of the kind of glacial but steady shifts, structural shifts in the country are hard to deal with in a political system that's broken. I think there is a moment of awakening at this juncture, that your butt's on the line on this one. And you've got to take hold of it yourself.
My wife and her friends are all down in Washington on Saturday. And none of them, for the most part, have been marching in their life. But they are now. And that's really the promise of all of this, is that people will feel that energy of sovereign, and will take control of a government that redresses grievance and gives a, more importantly, a sense of the possible.
In some ways, Obama's got the Hope poster, but hope is the birthright of the country, that when we are hopeless, we are not ourselves. We wake up in the morning feeling somehow wrong, not who we are meant to be. And ultimately, a country that has such large swaths that are feeling hopeless, for whatever reason, is dangerous to itself and to others, a country of this power. And I think in our hearts we know that.
And in some ways, we will rise to this moment, I feel, in ways that are impossible for us to predict.
TOM ASHBROOK: You're taking us to the mountaintop, but I've got to ask a couple practical questions here. And I'm feeling it. Amen, brother. [laughter] I'm feeling it, I'm there.
RON SUSKIND: Okay, maybe we should hug, then. [laughter/applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Heather, for you: As an authority on the history of the Republican Party, and you are, and given the evolution of the Republican Party in the last eight years, what is your prediction of how the Republican Party will reshape in the new future?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Thank you, whoever asked that. The Republican
Party is a fascinating party because of when it rose, during the American Civil War, or right immediately before the American Civil War, in a moment that looked much like today. And because of what it had to do when it had to fight that Civil War, it identified itself with America's DNA in a way that the Democrats did at a very different moment. So they do things very differently than the Republicans do.
If I had to predict, which fortunately you've asked me to do, I have argued for a long time that what happened after the New Deal is that a cabal – I've actually called them a cabal in print – called Movement Conservatives, who believed in that world, the antiEnlightenment world, if you will, that I outlined before, took over the Republican Party.
And they purged it of those that Newt Gingrich called RINOs – Republicans in Name
Only – but in fact they were the real Republicans – the Eisenhower Republicans, the
Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. The people that we know now as moderate
Republicans, were in fact the Abraham Lincoln Republicans, the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, the Eisenhower Republicans. And when we have those people in power, the country always does extraordinarily well.
So if I had to predict– and I've been watching this really closely, seeing who's out there and who's coming up. And I tell all of my students interested in politics, by the way, to go into the Republican Party if they don't otherwise have an interest, simply because I think that they're the ones who are going to rebuild along the most historical lines right now. And that is the most intellectually interesting to me, regardless of my own personal beliefs.
What we're going to see is somebody up and coming who is going to look extraordinarily like Eisenhower or like Teddy Roosevelt. And I'm not seeing that person yet, but I could practically write the speech– well, I couldn't practically, I could write the speeches right now for that person.
TOM ASHBROOK: What would they say? What's the message? How is it different from–
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Oh, it's a no-brainer, they all use the same message. And in fact, Obama used it frequently as well. I always say he was the fourth great Republican President. What they say is that the country works best when people at the bottom have education and equality of opportunity. And it is the government's job to distribute education and equality of opportunity, equal access to resources across the bottom of society so that people produce more than they consume, and it rises to a middle class who produce more than they consume, and it rises to the top for people who then have factories and employ people at the bottom.
And what makes that different than the way the Democrats look at the world is the fact it's a world in which there's a social web. It's not us versus them. And the pie is not limited; the pie expands exponentially so long as everybody has equality of opportunity, and we are all connected to each other in this social web, a circle, if you will, that looks very different than the Democrats' version of the world that tends to look at things as a closed pie of us versus them.
We need both of those ideas in American society. They work together. Sometimes we desperately need the us versus them, and sometimes we desperately need the social web vision. But it is time for somebody to articulate that vision of a social web again.
TOM ASHBROOK: Is that still in the GOP DNA? Are you confident? That sounds so unlike what–
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I think it is in the American DNA. And I don't believe that the Republican Party is going to disappear solely because of the mechanics of the fact it still exists. But as we know, both political parties have on occasion flipped positions on things like, for example, African American rights, women's rights. So I don't believe that you have to say "this is the Republican." Can the party nowadays change that? Is Paul Ryan ever going to believe this? Uh uh, not happening. Not even if hell freezes over.
But there are an awful lot of Americans, I suspect a lot of Americans right here in this room, who, if they found a politician who articulated that vision, would vote for that politician. And that label is going to have the word Republican on it. Because of our history. [applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Wow, amazing. Do you see a torch bearer out there somewhere? Can you name a person?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. There are a couple of people who are saying the right things. One of them is Charlie Baker here in Massachusetts. [applause] I always forget his name, in Maryland, I don't think he's going to be a goer. There's a guy out in Colorado. There are a few, but I actually think it's going to be somebody younger. And they're not there.
But like I say, as an historian, you almost can write the characters. And this is a character whose moment is just waiting. So if anybody's interested, I'll write your speeches. [laughter]
TOM ASHBROOK: Are you listening, Charlie Baker? Brian, I don't want to get into geographic or regional determinism, but in this time, you're the editor of the Boston Globe, how do you see the role of Boston, of this part of the country, with its politics, with its instincts, in the Trump era where we are way on the outs of what just happened down there. We have a 100% Democratic delegation to Congress in a time when Republicans rule. Will we have a different way of thinking about some of these problems certainly than Trump and many of the Republican leaders right now? What's the role of this region?
BRIAN McGRORY: I think we represent in many ways the best possible opposition to what will happen in the Trump administration. And we're already seeing it play out with our senior Senator, who has proven very adept at going toe to toe with the incoming President.
Look, so much of what this area represents, which is progressive values, the belief in science, the belief in community and our own healthcare system up here, is anathema to what this President may well try to bring to office. So I think we will be the best opposition that he has.
TOM ASHBROOK: From each of you: Here's an audience of people who signed up in five minutes to fill this because tomorrow something big is going to happen and people are filled with apprehension, questions. What's your call to citizens, whoever is in this hall tonight, how to engage with this time, how to engage with the next – I don't know what it's going to be – 18 months, four years, eight years? Heather?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I would say, first of all, care. Participate and care in stuff you believe in. But as frightening as this moment is for many of us, whose rights are really on the line, it is at the same time, as you say, a time both of tremendous fear but also of tremendous opportunity. And I look at it and, often I wake up in the morning and think, why? Why couldn't I have had a simple life? And then I think, we get to live through one of the great crises in human history, which is really what we're living through.
TOM ASHBROOK: Awesome. [laughter]
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: But it's in our hands. And this is the moment when the rubber meets the road and you have to say what you believe in and what you stand for. And frankly, I would prefer not to have had to do that. But given the fact that I don't seem to have a choice, it seems like embracing it is not a bad thing to do, because what we do is going to matter an awful lot more in a lot of ways than what our parents did and what our children do. And that's not a bad position to be in.
TOM ASHBROOK: My God, you're awesome. Ron, your clarion call.
RON SUSKIND: I would say take the long view, like Heather does. History's arc, it's long, but it does bend towards justice. Maybe not in a way you can see clearly day to day, but it does. All of human history is the same story, of the outcast, the outlier, finding a place at the shared table. That's been going on in America for some decades, despite a government that doesn't function. More and more the borders globally don't matter. We're in a very different planet where information is held in a PDA, 1000 libraries of Alexandria. It's lifting the planet. People are powerfully self-activated in ways they've never been before, even in the hollows of the world, in the deep valleys. All of that's going on. It's not going to stop.
Day-to-day, try to get out of the swings of fear and hate and anger and "oh, my God," because they pass. My friends in Washington say there's no scandal that lasts more than 48 hours these days. I think it's more like 24 hours. They come and they go. There'll be scandal fatigue; it's probably already setting in. And I think the key is to keep your eye on that long arc, because it is actually bending in the right direction, despite all of the nonsense that is dominating our daily breadth and life.
And that's the way that I think you survive during this time. And also it's a moment where your grandkids will say, if you have any, "What did you do during that time?" That's a moment of opportunity. You want to have stories to tell them. And I think that's incumbent upon each of us.
This is a tough time for me. I've got a son who is disabled, who's autistic.
TOM ASHBROOK: We've heard him, we've heard him on NPR. It's beautiful.
RON SUSKIND: Owen. And to see Trump abusing disabled people, I could not contain my anger. And Owen and I talked about that. He saw that, when Trump did that. He knows people like that.
TOM ASHBROOK: We all do.
RON SUSKIND: He lives in that world in many cases. And he has a lovely allegory that he created, really in response to what the world saw of him over the years. At one point he said, "Look, I'm not seen as a hero. I'm not a hero, I'm a sidekick." And that broke our hearts, Cornelia and I. He was only 11. Of course, we say, "Oh, I wish he felt like the hero." He said, "No, no, no, you see the sidekick is crucial. They help the hero fulfill their destiny. Without them, nothing happens.
And the beauty of that allegory, as he grows now, he's 25, he says, "Actually, I think we're all really sidekicks. At our best when we help others fulfill their destiny. And on that day, we find our inner heroes." [applause]
Now that definition of heroism is beautiful. And it's one everyone here can embrace. That's what will change the fabric of what we call America, which is really just an idea, in the years to come. Find your inner hero by helping others fulfill their destinies, and in that way you'll fulfill your own.
TOM ASHBROOK: Get up, stand up.
RON SUSKIND: You bet.
TOM ASHBROOK: Brian, do editors do clarion calls?
BRIAN McGRORY: Not as well as historians and authors, to be honest. [laughter] I would just take it to the most basic level. I understand the sentiment to go on a hike tomorrow or to ignore what's unfolding. I would advise people to watch, to understand deeply what you oppose, to capture the moment in history.
I would also advise that you participate in the protest on Saturday, if you're inclined. Or at least watch that as well. I'd suggest that you fully appreciate that the majesty of democracy and the resilience of our people will overcome the foibles of our individuals or the torture of specific moments.
More important, I would subscribe to a newspaper. [laughter/applause]
TOM ASHBROOK: Amen. I'm not going to try and top this. I simply want to thank everyone for gathering. Just this gathering is a kind of civic action. And I hope there are many, many more to come. [applause] I want to thank the Kennedy Library for this evening. It's wonderful. It just feels good to be here with all of you, and certainly with you. I am heartened by this night, and let us be strong and make it right. Thank you.
Thank you and good night, thank you very much. [applause]