“Just another day in paradise”

Donald Trump, working the media.

Who would have thought that after his first two months as president in daily public combat with big media over everything he said and did, at the end of the day of what was reportedly his biggest political setback, President Donald Trump would make a couple of spontaneous, surprise phone calls to reporters at the two biggest newspaper outlets perpetuating what he labeled “fake news”, to chat about it?

My first thought was ‘seems like what Pope Francis has been doing since he was elected pope‘, in February 2013. Really. Early. And often. And to popular media. It’s a way to control the message, even though both leaders have media handlers.

President Trump had to have thrown the New York Times off their footing when he phoned them to talk about the failure to get the GOP health care reform bill to a vote on Friday. ‘He’s blaming Democrats’, the Times said in this story about the call.

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, was preparing to tell the public that the health care bill was being withdrawn — a byproduct, Mr. Trump said, of Democratic partisanship. The president predicted that Democrats would return to him to make a deal in roughly a year.

“Look, we got no Democratic votes. We got none, zero,” Mr. Trump said in a telephone interview he initiated with The New York Times.

“The good news is they now own health care. They now own Obamacare.”

Mr. Trump insisted that the Affordable Care Act would collapse in the next year, which would then force Democrats to come to the bargaining table for a new bill.

“The best thing that can happen is that we let the Democrats, that we let Obamacare continue, they’ll have increases from 50 to 100 percent,” he said. “And when it explodes, they’ll come to me to make a deal. And I’m open to that.”

To some degree, this had to have flummoxed Trump’s most hostile detractors.

“I’m not disappointed,” he insisted. “If I were, I wouldn’t be calling you.”

The Washington Post had a great attention-grabbing headline: ‘Hello Bob’: President Trump called my cellphone to say that the health-care bill was dead‘. Well known journalist Robert Acosta recounted the moment the call came in, and the exchange he had with the president when he answered it.

At first I thought it was a reader with a complaint since it was a blocked number.

Instead, it was the president calling from the Oval Office. His voice was even, his tone muted. He did not bury the lead.

“Hello, Bob,” Trump began. “So, we just pulled it.”

Trump was speaking, of course, of the Republican plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, a plan that had been languishing for days amid unrest throughout the party as the president and his allies courted members and pushed for a vote.

Before I could ask a question, Trump plunged into his explanation of the politics of deciding to call off a vote on a bill he had been touting.

The Democrats, he said, were to blame.

“We couldn’t get one Democratic vote, and we were a little bit shy, very little, but it was still a little bit shy, so we pulled it,” Trump said.

Trump said he would not put the bill on the floor in the coming weeks. He is willing to wait and watch the current law continue and, in his view, encounter problems. And he believes that Democrats will eventually want to work with him on some kind of legislative fix to Obamacare, although he did not say when that would be.

I’m trying to picture Bob Costa at that moment, and those cold calls from Pope Francis kept coming to mind.

In sports, an artful move can result in ‘wrong footing’ an opponent. It means a player is lunging right when the ball goes left, or vice versa. You are thrown off your game. I thought of that, too.

These calls had to have thrown off two of the major media outlets Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer and other surrogates have targeted for perpetuating “fake news”. They and their entertainment media have played that up, to the point when Saturday Night Live’s string of opening skits satirized White House spokesman Spicer among others, and then Spicer refers to it in his daily press briefings, sometimes playing it up and using lines from the SNL skit, other times fitting right into that caricature. To the point where one TV news roundtable participant said he didn’t know whether it was ‘art imitating life, or life imitating art imitating life, or what’.

Which raises the real consideration of what is news, really. And Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The chapter titled ‘The Implosion of Meaning in the Media’ opens with this quote:

We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.

Provocatively, he explores and analyzes basically what we’ve been seeing, experiencing and consuming in news media for decades.

What is news, and what is reality?

Politics right now seem to be operating more feverishly on perception becoming reality. Whether that played into President Trump’s calls to the Times and Washington Post, or to what degree it did, is hard to tell, he’s such a wild card.

But his call to Robert Costa at WaPo was certainly interesting. And lengthy. It’s a back and forth exchange on the politics of trying to get, or stop, health care reform done and who tried to stop it and what comes next, and later down the road, and what it would take to get anything done.

And then Trump said this:

“Well, look, you can say what you want,” Trump said. “But there are years of problems, great hatred and distrust, and, you know, I came into the middle of it.”

So Costa says he wanted to get some clarity before wrapping up the call. It”s easy to imagine how head spinning this was at that point.

As Trump tried to hang up the phone and get back to work, I asked him to reflect, if at all possible, on lessons learned. He’s a few months into his presidency, and he had to pull a bill that he had invested time and energy into passing.

What was on his mind?

“Just another day,” Trump said, flatly. “Just another day in paradise, okay?”

He paused.

“Take care.”

It’s all in how you take it.

America gets a new president

Like him or not, the office is bigger than the officeholder. It’s time to rise to the occasion.

For the moment, let’s put aside the divisions and differences and for one, major, historic occasion that comes along only every so many years in a lifetime, come together as a nation of free citizens. And be grateful, together, and respect each other, for our shared dignity and humanity.

That’s not a lofty goal, it’s reachable. I knew that from earliest childhood, seemingly innately but surely also because of the upbringing I had in a good, strong family and my classical education in a Catholic school, where discipline, order, morality and service were in the air we breathed.

Growing up, I soaked in news and politics because that’s how things were communicated and run in this country. I asked questions and listened, keenly, to what was said. By my parents, other extended family, news reporters, politicians, the nation’s top leaders. I read the daily newspaper cover to cover from a very young age, cutting out the photos but writing my own story in the little newspapers I made. But I made them especially for the big stories of the day, for posterity I think. Stories about political conventions when they lasted much longer and politicians were longer winded (believe it or not). About the aspirations of some big name people and desperation of little known people, especially those in the path of danger or despair.

The presidential cycles were always big, because of the big ideas debated and promises made and plans offered. No matter who won, the swearing in of a new president was a Very Big Event in America, and in my life.

So I really appreciated the commentary I heard earlier this week from newsman Neil Cavuto at the end of his news hour, brief as it was, because it said what I felt, and I suspect a lot of Americans do as well. At least I hope so.

Honoring the institutions that define us.

This is, for the most part, what he said.

This peaceful transfer of power is what we’re all about. We are free not to like our presidents. It’s our business. But it’s our country. This isn’t so much about honoring the man who is assuming the office, but the office itself. This is not so much about the president, but the presidency.

It’s about what unites the vast crowds who brave the Washington cold every four years to witness history, to see something historic, no matter who is being sworn in. Just to be there. To feel it. To witness it. To be a part of it. Whether it’s about a retired General without a lick of political experience [Eisenhower], or a peanut farmer from the Deep South without any Washington experience [Carter]. Or an Illinois backwoodsman who takes command of a nation just as it’s coming apart [Lincoln], or a ridiculously young Massachusetts senator emerging from the closest American election to that date [Kennedy], or an African American drawing record crowds [Obama] to witness that moment, whether they voted for that man or not, because it’s not about the man, nor someday soon I hope, the woman, not the officeholder, but the office.

It’s about not just the house, but the White House. The institutions that define us are so much bigger than the passing occupants who come and go before us. Inaugurations are about honoring that, all of that, and all of us, that space in time we give space to each other, even as many are packed on the Mall, vast numbers, like sardines, with eyes fixed on the Capitol, some so far away they can’t even see who the heck is being sworn in. Just that they swore to be there to see it as it all played out…

What really matters is our American rite of passage, whether we like what’s passing before us or not. This is the day we give the benefit to our doubts, even as history shows, we doubted in our darkest moments whether we’d see any benefit at all. Yet we did, we do, it is our constant, our core. It is our right to celebrate, or not celebrate at all. As long as we step back and recognize this day, that it’s not about our next leader. It’s about us, the people he is leading.

Let’s celebrate, somehow, together. And then take up our responsibilities as citizens to make ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation better.