Column originally publish in the Tampa Bay Times.
The “gotcha game” is now in full roar in the dawning Age of Trump.
In predictable fashion, substantive stories of the day are conceding the stage to tittle-tattle tweets of the moment, diverting our attention from getting things done to guessing who’s the next to be done in.
The rumored ties between Trump campaign aides and Russian interlopers. The accelerating intelligence leaks in and beyond the intelligence community. The assault on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, suggesting this longtime military hawk has now become a pigeon to Putin.
Acknowledge or explain; recuse or resign! Game on.
I must confess that one of the revelations of moving from the cocoon of childhood to the outskirts of post-middle age is learning that not every enchantment loses its appeal over time.
Board games are such a marvel. From accumulating (and often losing) wealth in Monopoly, to playing an amateur sleuth in Clue, many of us spend part of a lifetime aspiring to be competitive masters of amusement. Today, board game cafes have become the rage across the world, while video games have eclipsed many major American sports (League of Legends drew a record 43 million to its last live-streamed tournament — ask any teenager).
In short, we like to game, so it’s no surprise Washington’s parlor game of “gotcha” has been a national pastime, where contestants try to ensnare their targets in eye-opening exposures of deceit and scandal. Watergate brought down a president and almost all the president’s men. Gary Hart lost heart when his taunt about marital devotion was haunted by pictures of bikinied infidelity. And as much as the adventures of Bill Clinton provided fabulous fodder for tabloid titillation, he was far from alone (John Edwards, Wilbur Mills, Eliot Spitzer, the “D.C. Madam”).
As a devotee of Edward R. Murrow, I believe the press and media are as essential to the health of our democracy, any democracy, as are the principles that drive it, the businesses that sustain it, and the citizens who created it. Yet every day we waste on distractions fueled by inchoate White House communicators and gotcha-mad media inquisitors is another day America won’t be talking about what really matters.
It’s a day when roads and bridges will not be built. Schools will not be fixed. Military readiness will not be strengthened. Jobs will not be created. Our families and communities will not be safeguarded. Our borders will not be protected. Our nation will not advance as a leader in a world looking for a leader in times of increased nationalism, nuclear proliferation and ISIS-bred danger.
The president’s address last week to the joint session of Congress, arguably his finest moments as either a candidate or commander in chief, spoke to these priorities. The press and media, in turn, reported on this address with appropriate objectivity and conceded its impact. Commentators echoed Peggy Noonan’s depiction of the address as exuding Reaganesque confidence in the American experience.
And yes, it just felt plain good. The allusion to Harley-Davidson as an icon of national pride, prosperity and attitude. The declaration that we are going to rebuild our internal strength by rebuilding our infrastructure. The resolve that we would stand tall with our allies against threats to mankind. The moments of gripping tribute to a slain American hero and his widow for selflessly offering everything of themselves to the country they love.
As Donald Trump’s poll numbers soared that night, a nation’s spirits soared, united and in unison, in a full-throated declaration of our manifest destiny.
My humble advice to the president: Do more of this. As often as you can. Put down the cellphone, pick up the megaphone, and inspire the American people. Replace the temptation to campaign with the ultimate redemption: lead.
It’s time to govern.
As a campaign media adviser for 38 years, I also understand it’s beyond hypocritical to suggest that we haven’t played a part in this game. Clearly we have. Elevate your champion, eviscerate your opponent, make yours a morality play about right and wrong, heroes and heretics, while proclaiming the high ground of principle and purpose.
There are no innocents here. The president, the partisans, the press and the public have all engaged in the gotcha game with relish. Yet instead of further debilitating an already divided nation, let’s do something truly radical by replacing labeling with leading, and gotcha with governing.
Before it’s too late. Before we’re all on the receiving end of a simple, game-ending denouement: “checkmate.”