18 Jan 2017

Reporting Presidents: the questions raised by Donald Trump

He was a ‘B’ movie star and we didn’t think that much of him in those days. Even though he had at least been Governor of California. Looking back, I suppose there were times when Ronald Reagan was regarded at the outset a bit like some now view Trump. Both, after all, promised to make America Great Again.

But Reagan surprised everyone. The man who spent decades as an actor turned out to play a major historical role. His hatred of Cuba was perhaps to be expected, as was his confusion as to exactly where Central America was, and who the evil operatives in the region were. What was a surprise was his eventual capacity to deliver a rapprochement with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union; which in turn led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the communist system.

Card cutout of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump

His second inauguration in 1985, was my first. I was less interested in the man than in the pageantry, the crowds, and the moment, but his second term saw the end of the Cold War and the lifting of the threat of nuclear catastrophe.
Bush Senior was rated competent, but was relatively uninteresting. Clinton promised much, and was at times too interesting, but at least got that it was the economy, stupid.

George Bush Junior never really seemed up to it, was confronted by the worst terror attack in history, but was then responsible for what is seen as one of the worst Presidential decisions in modern times – the invasion of Iraq and the triggering of a vast uptick in Islamist rooted terrorism.

History might be kinder to Obama than present commentaries suggest. A principled, decent, intelligent man, who used his eight years in the White House to reach out to the more excluded members of society. He changed the tone of the country and was a respected voice of reason; he could literally and figuratively lead the country in mourning from the pulpit in times of tragedy, and from the stage at times of celebration.

However, his attempt to restrain American military adventurism and close down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had other consequences. His critics say he withdrew US power too quickly, allowed a red line in Syria to be trampled over, and enabled Russia to replace the US as the key player in the Middle East. Domestically he was hemmed in by political opponents that critics say he seemed unable to cut deals with; he lacked the ability or character to get down and dirty in his politics. He went high, but all around him others went low. Cue Trump.

Donald Trump and President Obama shake hands

By any measure, the transition from Obama to Trump must represent one of the most dramatic changing of the guard and mood in modern American history.

Trump has defied all expectation. He appears to have done nothing to temper his Tweets or his behaviour. Judged by his predecessors he appears to be aggressively un-presidential. Nearer the playground bully than the pulpit preacher.

And there is the rub. Trump’s inauguration is a chance for him to rise above the fray, to show dignity. He won the Presidency as a street fighter, offending many but shouting what he says are the people’s great truths to gain power. Now he has power. He says he can make the deals America needs to reboot itself and bring back the promise of ever increasing prosperity. But will he become Presidential?

Last time round many were still fuelled and perhaps seduced by “the audacity of hope”. This time much of the media is trying to find the route to be dispassionate, temperate and objective when dealing with the Donald. It is a route obstructed by anger-fuelled tweets, attacks on opponents, and a speed and simplicity of reaction and emotion that has never been Presidential.

With Trump they say what you see is what you get. However, reporting the apparent contradictions seems to many to represent bias, an unwillingness to give the President-Elect a fair hearing. Take his assault on Goldman Sachs during the campaign, and his subsequent decision to surround his cabinet with a cluster of those very people. A billionaire recruiting other billionaires to destroy the establishment. His denials of having mocked a disabled reporter – of which video evidence exists. His claiming at various times that he both has, and has not, met Vladimir Putin. How do you make sense of that? I have never known any “story” where it has proved so difficult simply to tell the straight truth.

Still, as the sun sets on the Obama era, many hope that the former reality TV star’s reign will herald Morning in America once again. It would be quite a turnaround for a man who’s run a uniquely brutal campaign.

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