At about the same time Donald Trump was surging to the top of Republican presidential polls — after calling illegal immigrants from Mexico rapists and challenging John McCain’s heroism because he was shot down and imprisoned — Time magazine’s cover showed former President Bill Clinton, progressive Democrat, and former President George W. Bush, conservative Republican, half-smiling.
And when you read the compelling interview with the two inside, you know what they are smiling about.
They know, by their friendship and the response they get from people across the country, that they have proven that the politics of civility is still possible and that it is what most Americans want.
“I do believe that people yearn to see us both argue and agree,” Clinton said. “And they know in their gut, they gotta know, that all these conflicts just for the sake of conflict are bad for America and not good for the world.”
And Bush added, “I think [our mutual friendship and respect] lifts their spirits. Most people expect that a Republican and Democrat couldn’t possibly get along in this day and age.”
Why can’t we see more of this spirit of civil disagreement and mutual respect in today’s political culture? How is it possible that someone like Trump, whose dishonesty and hypocrisy are as obvious as his venom and demagoguery, can win the support of so many Republicans to be the next president of the United States?
I blame much of this on the mainstream and cable news media’s addiction to innuendo-laden, anonymously sourced journalism, more concerned about posting first than getting it right.
For example, late last Thursday night, The New York Times posted the false assertion that Hillary Clinton’s handling of her emails was the subject of a criminal referral to the Justice Department. For most of Friday and through the weekend, national newspapers and websites, cable TV and social media went hysterical with the story, failing to do any independent fact-checking of their own.
Finally, on Monday, the Times belatedly admitted its two errors: that there was a “criminal” referral and that there was any referral about Clinton personally. But the paper’s admission was, at best, oblique and nontransparent, and it seemed to blame its anonymous sources rather than its rush to publish.
And what about all the other news outlets, pundits and cable talking heads that breathlessly repeated the false accusations about Clinton? They offered no apologies that I could hear.
Don’t hold your breath.
The end result of this Internet-driven, get-it-first media culture is that most Americans have come to distrust the media even more than they distrust politicians, whom they also distrust in large part because of this toxic media-political complex.
In stark contrast are the lessons of Time’s Clinton-Bush story. When I read it I recalled the way I began a book I wrote in 2010 called Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.
On May 14, 2004, I wrote, in a sunny White House East Room ceremony, President and Mrs. Bush welcomed President Clinton and Sen. Clinton for the presentation of their official White House portraits.
At the beginning of his gracious introduction, Bush said: “President Clinton and Senator Clinton, welcome home. … Over eight years, it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency. He filled this house with energy and joy. … My congratulations to you both.”
President Clinton responded:
“The president, by his generous words to Hillary and me today, has proved once again that, in the end, we are held together by this grand system of ours that permits us to debate and struggle and fight for what we believe is right.
“I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue what’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.”
The result was a thunderous, standing ovation by the audience of past Clinton and current Bush administration officials. I was one of them.
We applauded, feeling the euphoria of knowing that if it was possible for these two political leaders, who disagreed on so many issues, to be united by a commitment to civil discourse, then we could do that too.
I have a feeling that if Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush end up as the presidential nominees of both major parties in 2016 — and that may not be the case — that they will conduct a campaign debating the issues that will make most Americans proud, regardless of the outcome.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).