I am so grateful for the invitation to be here, at the National Press Club, at a time when the free press enjoys such universal acclaim and appreciation from those who occupy positions of power in America. I mean, really, all the fawning from the White House must get a little unnerving at times.
In all seriousness, though, I am proud to be here, and it is an honor to speak at one of the few constitutionally-protected clubs in the country.
I only regret that there is not much of interest happening in the world for us to talk about today.
I’m sorry to say that it gives me no pleasure to talk to you this afternoon about the state of our politics – about the damage being done, my party’s seeming amnesia in the face of it, and what we as a country must do in response to these relentless threats to our democratic institutions. To see our way clear in the daily maelstrom of this current administration requires perspective – which is, of course, easier said than done.
Perspective, I’ve always thought – and this may reflect some geographical bias – is more easily attained for a westerner. I grew up as a kid on the F-Bar Ranch in rural Arizona, and if we needed to gauge the condition of the range, to find out where the cattle were feeding, to determine whether the stock tanks had water, or to measure the damage to roads and fences after a flood, we would find the highest hill or butte and ride our horses to the top. From such a vista we could dispatch cowboys to gather cattle, machinery to shore up roads, or workers to repair fences – to restore some semblance of order.
There are no tall buttes in these parts, no vista offering clear panoramic views. But it is nonetheless our obligation to assess the condition of our politics, then to mitigate and repair the damage. Because as we are discovering, and will be discovering in the years to come, there is no damage like the damage a president can do.
This is not a normal political speech, for these are not normal political times. Wishing it were otherwise won’t make it so, and pretending that the state of our politics is not dire will not save us from its consequences. This is not a time for pretending. This is a time for defending our democratic institutions – and for resisting the resurgent authoritarian impulse the world over.
Defending democratic institutions ought not be a controversial idea, and hasn’t been until very recently. But recognizing that our institutions are under threat from within, with clarity, seems to me a basic obligation of the Article I branch of government – the congress, whose power is, in theory, equal to that of the president’s. Conservatives in the congress used to be very clear about their institutional prerogatives and obligations under the Constitution. I should emphasize: Used to be.
Over the past several months, I’ve had occasion to take to the senate floor to describe with alarm the state of our democracy as I see it. Simple acts of conscience have never seemed more important. Of course, it seems at times like these that speaking in measured tones in the face of the routine vandalism of our democratic norms, is like whispering into a hurricane.
But we must speak out. For a politics that keeps us silent when we should speak is worthless in defense of the things we hold most dear. And as an article of faith, I firmly believe that if one voice can do such profound damage to our values and to our civic life, then one voice can also repair that damage. One voice can call us to a higher idea of America. One voice can act as a beacon to help us find ourselves once again, after this terrible fever breaks. And it will break.
We will get through this, and when we do, there will be much work to do to repair the damage. There will have to be an accounting for how we got here so that we might never find ourselves here again. There will have to be an American restoration. And for the sake of the common good and for basic human decency - we will have to create a new politics. This will be the obligation of all of us – those of us in elective office, those of us who will soon not be, and those us too smart to ever engage in politics in the first place.
Just as happens after a great storm leaves ruin in its wake, we will come together to rebuild. To shore up the foundations of our institutions that have seen such a gale lately, from that unpredictable storm now in the White House.
We will throw our backs into reinforcing the beams of the American system of justice, to make sure that never again will the independence of the judiciary be so threatened and the tenets of justice be so abused. It is a measure of how far we have fallen when we must fight for the basic ideas of American liberty and for the preservation of basic norms – such as, the attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer, and the FBI director does not owe the president personal loyalty, but rather loyalty to the Constitution – to name but two.
In the wake of this storm, we will once again make clear to our allies that we are allies, and we will not ever again be afraid to remind friend and foe alike that it is our values that make America America.
We will not wink and nod at dictators.
Nor will we congratulate them for the good job they are doing in their programs of extrajudicial killings.
Nor will we host them in the Oval Office.
Nor will we hesitate to punish them for attacking our elections.
No, when this period is behind us, when the congress passes Russia sanctions with a sense of urgency, then you can be sure that we will implement those sanctions immediately.
We will be crystal clear and unambiguous in our defense of this country against the rogue ambitions of the likes of Vladimir Putin. There can be no passivity regarding the demonstrated Russia threat.
If this president saw it as his mandate to come in and turn the system upside down, to break the logjam and get things done, then it strains comprehension how going easy on dictators, and how undermining the independence of our justice system are part of the solution to breaking Washington’s partisan logjam.
They are not part of the solution, of course. Rather, they are among the bizarre features of this anomalous presidency, and it is our duty going forward to make sure that they remain anomalous, and never become thought of as normal.
How anomalous is this behavior? At a Pennsylvania rally just days ago, the President sought to quiet the crowd from booing at the mention of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Just as he encouraged, and reveled in, a chorus of jeers for the U.S. news media. This was the same speech, of course, in which he taunted a member of congress for having a “low IQ.”
Referring to the media as “the enemy of the people” is not normal or acceptable. It is hard to say whether the President is aware of that phrase’s ignoble pedigree, or whether this impulse just comes naturally to him. Either way, dictators around the world are borrowing the President’s usage of the term “fake news” to silence legitimate criticism and opposition.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are a record number of journalists now being jailed worldwide, with 21 of that number being held on “false news” charges, gravely echoing the President’s language.
Yet we are told – mostly by people in my party - to ignore the President’s words. Pay attention to what he does, not what he says, these people say.
These calls, of course, ignore the entirety of American history (not to mention the undeniable power of the words of a president), and exhort us to adopt a new norm to accommodate undignified public behavior for just this one president. In the sweep of our history, have we ever been urged not to listen to what the president says? Of course not. And such admonitions are preposterous now. Accommodating the unacceptable – willfully adding deafness to our already stunning blindness. This gives a whole new meaning to Senator Moynihan’s felicitous phrase “defining deviancy down.”
We will get through this and when we do, perhaps what will most be remembered will be the war on objective reality, and the reflexive impulse to speak falsely. This is a problematic trait in business, a serious problem in personal relationships – but as a defining character trait, absolutely devastating in an American president.
If one’s word is one’s bond, then the bonds that bind Americans – to each other and to the world – are truly imperiled.
There is nothing that will be more vital to expunge from the American record than this frenzied attack on the truth. There are few jobs that will be more difficult than putting that particular horse back in the barn. Such is the power of a president to either build or destroy. And the irony should not escape us here - that someone whose name became known to us as a builder would have such a penchant for destruction.
But as he was renowned at branding his name - and putting his name on as many buildings and products as possible … in his wake, we will do well to similarly affix his name to many necessary reforms as well. In that way, this president may end up bringing reform to Washington, DC after all (just not in a way he could have imagined).
And yet there are those in my party who continue to marvel at the strategic underpinnings of the daily chaos set loose from the White House. You just have to shake your head. That which is strategic must first be thought, then thought through, then a true leader has the confidence to have people more experienced than he, tell him why it might be a terrible idea. Subject area experts become involved, maybe an astute lawyer who can give advice on whether something you want to do adheres to the Constitution. White papers are drafted, staffing happens, key people are read in, policy is made.
The time it takes for a notion to tickle the cerebellum, send a signal to your fingers to pick up your phone and thumb-type a tweet is not a comparable process. We should know by now that there is no strategic brilliance to marvel at here. No, by now we know that this is chaos for its own sake, projected onto the world.
But the norming of this behavior by my party proceeds apace.
In my recent book, I wrote about Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” in which the strategic projection of the appearance of instability can force a desired outcome from a fearful foe. But for that theory to have coherence, you have to actually think strategically. And once you take the theory away, all that remains is the madman.
We must be able to at least describe honestly what we are seeing with our own eyes. That is the least that we owe the people we represent. Not to describe that which we wish to be, or to enable further confusion with the oh-so-familiar “What the president meant to say…” No, the presidency is far too powerful an institution for a president to be so enabled.
But then, never has a party abandoned – fled! - its principles and deeply-held beliefs as quickly as my party fled its principles in the face of a nativist juggernaut.
We have become strangers to ourselves, even as we pretend that everything is fine, as if this is the way it has always worked.
To that I say – nonsense.
If my party is going to try to pass off the degradation of the United States and her values from the White House as normal … if we are going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader … if we are going to refuse to live in the world that everyone else lives in … and reckon with the daily reality that they face – including their very real and understandable anxiety they feel … then my party might not deserve to lead.
It has been a twisted road to this point, but we must see our way out of here. That, of course, requires a recognition of the danger we have put ourselves in, it requires accountable leadership, and it requires good old American willpower.
We will get through this and when we do, how refreshing it will be once again to have leaders who can take criticism and not succumb to the impulse to attack the critic and the criticism, reflexively calling anything that doesn’t suit him fake news, or un-American, or treasonous. How refreshing it will be once again to know where the buck stops. That poor buck, lost out there, looking for someone, somewhere to take responsibility.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, near the beginning of one of the greatest American novels, The Great Gatsby, had his main character Nick Carraway, after a period of trauma and disillusionment, wanting for the world to stand at moral attention forever – no longer interested in “riotous excursions.”
The United States, after this riotous excursion, would do well to stand at moral attention for a spell. I do not know about forever, Mr. Fitzgerald, though I admire the ambition – but after the past couple of years, I’d settle for the world standing at a sort of moral attention for a day or two. That would be a good start.
We could all stand to be chastened for our part in this.
It has been a long, tortured process that has gotten us here, and it will take will and work to get us out of here – to once again put the interests of the people who elect us ahead of the prerogatives of power. It shouldn’t be hard because it is basic; but it will be hard.
To restore leadership that is aware of and cherishes our constitutional framework, which by design is meant to force compromise. It shouldn’t be hard because it is basic; but it will be hard.
To once again have a leader that assumes that Democrats and Republicans are not intractable enemies but competing friends. Leadership that recognizes the once-seminal American notion of the common good. It shouldn’t be hard because it is basic; but it will be hard.
To swing this pendulum away from the toxicity of our current moment, we must recognize the good in our opponents. These days, administrations are designed to vanquish opponents, and the axiom “elections have consequences” has become nothing short of a threat. We must turn away from this brand of poisonous politics, the kind of poison that has a president slinging insults like a bad comic at a cheap roast.
Yes, the pendulum swings, thank goodness, and the people themselves will show us the way out of here. If this sounds like the call to a new politics, it is. But it is just as much a call to a politics that is not at all new – to the best traditions of America – of true leadership and vision – of Lincoln’s malice toward none, and charity for all.
We will get through this, and when we do, our institutions will have been severely tested. Sometimes I tell myself – hopefully – that the pillars of our democracy have seen worse than us, and survived. (Perhaps I flatter us.) But it is the story of America that we will be better for the hard lessons of this experience. We are much better and more decent than Washington shows us to be. We are a good people. And we are a deeply resourceful and resilient nation, and our greatness is based on no one man – no one man who “alone can fix it,” but rather on enduring ideas of self-governance and the rule of law that have been a model for the world for centuries. Ideas that can be mocked, but not marred.
There are no high buttes in this town, but if there were, we could gain the high ground and survey the damage. But the thing about gaining the high ground is from up there you can see beyond the damage, too. You can see everything. That is the job before us – to get through this, and beyond it.
Thank you for having me here today.