Holding the Government Accountable

The Curse of Certainty

When did we become so sure of ourselves?
President Trump at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., in May. Coast Guard photo / Patrick Kelley

Last week’s July 4th festivities recalled for me when I sensed America’s national security, not to mention its politics, began going haywire. I was at a Washington, D.C., party on Independence Day, 2003—14 years ago—and we were chatting about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that had been launched three months earlier.

The question hung heavy in the humid air, amid the scent of grilling hotdogs: where the heck were Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? They were, after all, the key reason for the invasion.

“Don’t worry,” a CIA official said as he sipped his beer. A couple of us waited for him to elaborate. “We’re going to find them. I know it—I guarantee it.” I remember being shocked by the depth of the CIA man’s certainty. He didn’t merely believe they would be found, he knew they would. The U.S. body politic has never been the same, at least for me.

I’m pondering this issue, a little afield from my usual fare, after writing the Military-Industrial Circus for nearly six months (and just before I take a couple of weeks off to try to clear my head on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay). Thanks for reading.

But back to that July 4th cookout. The temerity of the CIA man’s words struck me. I mean, I was raised a Catholic and believed in Jesus Christ, but my faith, and perhaps aware of my own unPope-like fallibility, would have kept me from guaranteeing His existence. Doubt, you see, nurtures humility, and humility makes life more pleasant for you…and for those around you.

We see this trend in national-security circles. The nuclear triad and national missile defense have gone from Cold War tools to 21st Century theology. Keeping the country safe—the federal government has no more important role—has been held hostage to the domestic politics of the purposeful mishandling of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the quaint adage that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” which politicians used to cite when debating foreign policy and matters of war and peace. It will eventually be true again. The only unknown is whether we will wise up on our own or be forced to do so because the nation finds itself in extremis.

These days, our nation—or at least those parts of it with the biggest megaphones—increasingly seem no longer constrained by self-restraint wrought by humbleness. Too often, whoppers from one side are countered by whoppers from the other. For reporters of a certain age, the fact that facts don’t seem to matter so much anymore is dispiriting. “We have a risk of getting to a place where we don’t have shared public facts,” Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told CNN July 2. “A republic will not work if we don’t have shared facts.”

From where I sit, the last president who was tolerated by the political opposition was George H.W. Bush, the one who launched a war against Iraq (in 1991, after Saddam occupied Kuwait) but didn’t invade it (his son, George W. Bush, who did so in 2003). The partisan rhetoric fired at Bill Clinton, the second Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump began nasty and only has gotten worse. Some is/was warranted, and is/was well within the bounds of political debate. But much of it has not been.

Each was a chief executive of different gifts and sins. President Trump is plainly the outlier. “The main problem is the possibility that America has an unbalanced president during a period of high-stakes global testing,” GOP political operative and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote July 7. “Trump holds a job that requires, above all else, the ability to unite and steady the nation in a time of crisis. There is no reason to believe he can play that role.”

Maybe so. Nonetheless, the fact that the press, and therefore much of the nation, was stunned by his victory stands as an indictment of the reporting corps. It only emboldened his supporters and justified their eagerness to ignore the mainstream media. How relevant can they be, the thinking goes, when they are so out of touch? Who knows how things might have turned out if the reporting had been better, and that we all knew before the election last November that Trump and Hillary Clinton were neck-and-neck?

If you disdain Trump, it’s important to acknowledge that he’s merely a symptom of what you perceive to be a problem. Moving beyond him will leave us in the same place if the political ailments that put him into office continue to fester. Those elements have created fissures that have grown into chasms.

The political arts, once largely the purview of reasoned discussion and the acknowledgement that no one has all the answers, has devolved into a lust for “moral superiority and personal destruction,” according to the New York Times’ David Brooks.

I spent a couple of weeks in western Pennsylvania last September, and came back to Washington surprised by what I had found. Trump signs were everywhere, and I saw—believe it or not—signs for Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz before finally spying a single one for Clinton. Michael Goodwin, a one-time New York Times reporter and editor who now works for the New York Post and Fox News, wrote recently of the impact last year’s election has had on the press with the fervor of the newly-converted. “Day in, day out, in every media market in America, Trump was savaged like no other candidate in memory,” he said, “We were watching the total collapse of standards, with fairness and balance tossed overboard.”

Our current plight is a rancid stew whose key ingredients include the atomized media, including the Internet, a warped Congress, and an economy that has reached a tipping point favoring the haves over the have-nots. The have-nots have tolerated income inequality so long as they were getting ahead, but for the past 40 years they have been treading water, economically. Trump deftly tapped into their frustration. Ironically, economic uncertainty seems to breed certainty. You can sense that when you leave well-heeled areas of the country for those regions hit harder by globalization, deindustrialization, and the increase in technology that increasing seems to benefit the haves.

Like it or not, the media is the axle around which the wheel of political discourse spins. It needs to do a better job

The Jekyll-and-Hyde economy has contribute to the trend. “Conspiracy theories flourish when people feel vulnerable,” Adrienne LaFrance says in the Atlantic. “They thrive on paranoia. It has always been this way.” Back in the day, the dispossessed were limited to grousing at the local bar or coffee shop. But thanks to the mixed blessing of the Internet, they are able to connect with those who feel as they do and achieve a critical mass.

Gerrymandered congressional districts have made things worse. State legislators, who usually draw the boundaries, serve their own party’s interests, which has led to safe Democratic or Republican districts. That effectively has turned party primaries into general elections, and pushed Republican districts further to the right and Democratic districts more to the left. This recipe for gridlock has justifiably soured citizens on Washington. While lawmakers may mostly be fine folks, their inability to place country above political party grates. Key issues like how much to spend on the nation’s defense, crumbling infrastructure and its Rube Goldberg health-care system have become mere shuttlecocks in the game of domestic politics.

Finally, like it or not, the media is the axle around which the wheel of political discourse spins. It needs to do a better job. For generations, places to advertise were a scarce commodity, and, as a result, news was delivered by eyedropper and vetted by editors. Nowadays it’s a torrent, and good editors—while needed more than ever—are in relatively short supply.

It’s not so much that the press generates “fake news.” It’s that in a day limited to 24 hours, choices about what to cover, and how, gives something less than an omnipotent view of what is happening. Humility means not knowing all the answers. People who admit they don’t know all the answers hate those who think they do. “If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views,” Elizabeth Kolbert noted in the New Yorker shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

Even the late TV shout-show host John McLaughlin - relied on the existence of “metaphysical certitude,” a term used by Jesuits like him to mean certainty. But it was only No. 10 on a 10-point scale. Today, much of the public debate is waterlogged with the stuff. Twitter—the WD-40 of political debate, generating the logorrhea of the instant outrage—has turned reflection into a luxury too many of us feel we no longer can afford. “The amplification and monetization of outrage via the Web, talk radio and cable news consume airtime but solve none of the country’s challenges,” radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt wrote in the Washington Post on July 4.

The flood of new media has led to the breakdown of old norms. “A CNN host called President Trump a “man baby” and a piece of excrement. (He used a more profane term, and later apologized),” the New York Timesnoted last month. “A guest on `Fox & Friends’ proposed that some Muslims in the United Kingdom be placed in internment camps, prompting an on-air disavowal from the hosts.”

Cable TV and the internet hype the desires and id of the 10% at the poles of the political spectrum. But most Americans are centrists. “The people who are most politically engaged—the people who consider themselves most morally `responsible’—pose the greatest threat to the political system, weakening its ability to compromise and condemning it to paralysis,” Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson noted July 5. “The fringes of both parties have acquired political power and, to some extent, disenfranchised the larger and ideologically messier middle.”

This has led to a growing news illiteracy. “I talk to a longtime friend of the family who tells me with great authority that Hillary Clinton is a member of the Illuminati and that she and her husband have killed scores of people, including children, who they also sexually molested,” author Dave Sedaris wrote recently in the Paris Review. Sedaris asks if he’s joking. “He’s not, and within minutes words are shooting from his mouth like water from a fire hose. It’s hard to catch it all, but I do grab hold of, `You think it’s a coincidence that Prince was murdered on Queen Elizabeth’s birthday?’”

Sometimes such tripe is more troubling. “Five years after the Sandy Hook shooting, we receive emails weekly suggesting that our daughter did not die,” Nelba L. Márquez-Greene, whose 6-year old daughter, Ana Grace, was one of 26 killed at Sandy Hook in 2012, wrote last month in the Washington Post. “Or that President Barack Obama was behind her death.”

You can sense this breakdown when talking to friends, whether at home or abroad, or simply by checking out their Facebook and Twitter feeds, which tend to clump together in political harmony like a school of fish, a darkening cloud darting left or right, all together, depending on the day’s news. Here’s something I find interesting: my military friends and acquaintances seem to be far more politically diverse than those from the world of journalism.

I’ve long thought a leading indicator for a healthy life is an innate curiosity about most everything, and a conscious decision to avoid falling into mental ruts. As a young reporter I can remember colleagues raising their eyebrows when they “caught” me reading William F. Buckley’s National Review (it used to be given out for free on the press-release racks in the National Press Club). It bothered me then, as it bothers me now, for professionals purportedly trying to figure out what is going on to willfully ignore what was, for many years, the Republican playbook.

The flip side of certainty is a refusal to entertain that the other side may be right, at least some of the time. This becomes particularly gnarly when folks embrace proven falsehoods. It’s the ultimate marker of a falling into a rut: a refusal to challenge yourself, preferring instead to cocoon yourself in the silk of your own self-righteousness.

My family will gather up in Rhode Island next week along with some pals from my earliest days in (paid) journalism, dating back to 1970. My first boss, the late Bill Foster, published the weekly Rhode Island Pendulum in East Greenwich, the town where I grew up.

After receiving some hot letters to the editor from readers about something I’d written, Mr. Foster told me that his favored response to such irate missives, or angry face-to-face confrontations with readers, featured grace beyond the ken of many reporters. “You may have a point,” he’d tell them. He assured his young reporter that it generally took the air out of the complainant’s angry balloon. “And,” he added, “it drives them crazy.”

Today, too many people are already crazy. I’d be willing to settle for a little less anger and a little more listening. And, most importantly, a lot more curiosity.