You’ve been in this business for seven decades. I wonder if you could give some perspective on how 2020 compares to difficult times the country has faced in the past?
I do think we need to remind ourselves that we have as a country, as a people, been through some very difficult times in the past. Just in my lifetime we had a combination of the Great Depression and World War II. The 1960s were a very difficult time for the country. We were very divided in the latter part of the 1960s, with very serious race riots. We had some public demonstrations about the war, we had the assassinations of two Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. In the mid-1970s, the widespread criminal conspiracy led by the president that we call for shorthand Watergate had the country in a serious constitutional crisis.
We’ve seen rain, we’ve seen fire. We’ve seen difficult times before, but no doubt about it, 2020 was difficult. In some ways it was uniquely difficult, I think, in terms of both the spirit and tone and substance of the presidency. We still have a lot of crises going on. A good deal of that can be rooted, in my opinion, in a crises of information and the truth. We’ve seen the pandemic, the campaign and now, as you and I speak in the aftermath of the election, we’ve seen very clearly how the sinister role of propaganda has affected our national discourse. That, unfortunately, has been one of the signatures of 2020. Lies are spreading faster than mildew in a damp basement.
How do we turn around from that?
Well, this is the key question moving forward. And it starts with, we have to recognize that there are a lot of culprits responsible for what we just outlined as our problems. Let’s have it said straight out for what it is. It starts with the president of the United States. We also have to look at the major disseminators and amplifiers of these lies, particularly social media. And, you know, I do think going forward that we have to keep in mind some truths, some special truths. For instance, we Americans are deep down in the main and by a large majority, a good and decent people. So what can we do going forward? I don’t want to be sophomoric in the answer in any way, but I think it starts with asking yourself: “What can I do to help somebody else? What can I do to help my neighbors, and demonstrate, not just talk about, but demonstrate love for their families and love for our country?”
But people have to base decisions on facts. So, you know, we can’t all agree on what the truth is. And the truth is certainly not easy to discern. But there are truths, and getting to facts and back to the basis of facts and truth is obviously very important going forward. In many important ways, especially with the pandemic and with the policies and statements being so toxic this last year, objective truth is under assault. And we have to just keep reminding ourselves that, yes, there are some things that are not clear, but there are facts. Two and two does not equal five. Water does not run uphill. Unfortunately, in some of this year, an effort was made to convince us otherwise. But we know better, and we can help ourselves going forward by reminding ourselves of that.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we do have systemic injustices in the country. Many of these stretch back to the very beginning of the republic. And we had not reckoned with them fully. We’ve reckoned with them sporadically and sometimes effectively, but we haven’t reckoned with them fully, and they are a deep undertow to progress. And when you add the propaganda to injustice, it’s a very potent, toxic mix. And so going forward, the faster we can recognize that as the reality, the better we’re going to be.
How do you think President Trump is going to be judged by history?
Let the record show I pause, because it’s always very difficult to know or even accurately guess how history is going to judge a presidency. But it’s very difficult for me to believe — in fact, I don’t believe — that history is going to be anything but exceptionally harsh on President Trump and his presidency. Both for the tone and the substance of it and for the damage done to our institutions. And that includes, you know, almost every one of the institutions which makes our constitutional republic, based on the principles of freedom and democracy, unique. He attacked anybody and everybody who disagreed with him, including members of the judiciary, members of Congress, the press. He did immense damage to the institutions, and that damage can’t be repaired very easily.
You wrote a book in 2017, “What Unites Us,” and at that point you expressed great faith in the resilience of America. But it feels like we’re more divided now, and I wonder if you still have that faith?
Absolutely. I do have a deep and abiding faith in our capacity for resilience. And I did write that in 2017 and quite agree that since I wrote it that resilience has been put to some severe and difficult tests. But I think I know America, and I think I know my fellow Americans, and we do have a resilience in us. What we have to do is mount that resilience. It’s one thing to say we have it and to say that our whole history indicates that we’re resilient people. But every generation has to demonstrate it anew. Here we are moving into the third decade of the 21st century, and that’s the question: Do we still have that resilience? Can we still mount that resilience? I’m an optimist by nature and by experience, and I think we do, but we’re about to find out.
Do you think the division in the country is as fierce as it is portrayed, or have politicians and others have really ramped up that sense of division?
Well, there’s no question that politicians and some others have exacerbated the divisions in the country. And, yes, in some ways on some days, I think perhaps it has been exaggerated, including maybe exaggerated in the press. However, the election results give me pause. Before the election returns were known, I might give a slightly different answer. If you read the election returns, there were more than 70 million people who voted to return Donald Trump to the presidency. This has me rethinking how really deep and wide divisions are. I’m sorry to say that, and I’d love to be proven wrong, but I think the election speaks loud and clear. You know, the divisions are really, really deep and wide, and it’s going to require everything we can muster to — we can’t eliminate them, but to reduce them.
Now, I know there’s a lot of talk that Joe Biden is just the man to do that. And I have great respect for Vice President Biden. I’ve known him since the ’60s or ’70s. He is a good and decent man, but it takes more than presidential leadership. Let’s hope and pray that we have strong presidential leadership, and I think Joe Biden is capable of doing that. But as powerful as the presidency is, no president and no presidential administration is stronger than the country as a whole. So, it’s all well and good to hope and pray, as I say, that Joe Biden can lead the country back from the abyss of the divisions. But I try to remind myself, you know, it’s not up to other people as much as it is up to me and each individual.
President-elect Biden has talked about this being a time for healing. What shape do you think that can take?
It starts with listening to people and particularly listening to people who have different points of view. And to listen doesn’t mean that you agree. But to answer your question, I think healing can start by really listening to one another. Sometimes you hear people, but you don’t really listen — listening to one another and trying to find common ground. I do think we need both in the political sphere and in every sphere in the country an attitude of: “Listen, you and I may disagree about 100 things, and we’re not going to agree about those. Let’s find one thing that we can agree on that is common ground and work on it.”
You talked about the 70 million people who voted for President Trump. What message would you have for them?
The message I have for them is that I do not hate you. I don’t even dislike you. I know that Fox News in the prime-time hours has been saying to their listeners, ‘They hate you, the press hates you, everyone out there hates you.’ I start with the message that I want to listen, I want to hear what you have to say. I want to know what really bothers you. I want to know what you think needs to be changed. My message is I’m listening. I’m of open mind and open heart. That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree or give up with my principles, but I really want to find common ground.
What I’m hearing from a lot of people who voted for Trump both times is that there were a lot of things about Trump that they didn’t like, but they did think that much of his economic policy worked. Now others, including myself, can disagree with that if we might. But there was tendency to think that overwhelmingly the people who voted for Trump liked his bombastic style. That doesn’t match my reporting.
For many reporters, 2020 has been exhausting. I wondered if there was any time you ever thought about walking away from journalism?
Never. Absolutely never. You know, I have a lot of flaws, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But, you know, I do love reporting news and have since I was a child. But I’ve never, never considered for a nanosecond walking away from it. I love doing it. Although sometimes when it’s difficult, the tendency for me is not to want to walk away from it, I just want to go full throttle forward and just plunge into it. Particularly this last year, year and a half. Come on, Joe, you know that if you’re a reporter, your prayer is, “God, give me the big story.” Now, because we’re all a little greedy, we pray right behind that, “And by the way, Lord, if you give me the big story, could you please allow me to be at or near my best in the big story?”
This interview has been edited and condensed.