What I ended up saying to Rotary


Your suggestions — especially Kathryn’s — led more or less directly to my drafting the words below, which I delivered to the Capital Rotary Club at the Palmetto Club early this morning.

I pretty much zipped through the prepared stuff in order to get to my favorite part — questions. But here’s what I started with:

I was asked to come talk about the current election, and I hardly know where to start.

I think I’ll start with PREVIOUS elections.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on my blog this week about The State’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Sunday – or rather, to put it more accurately, The State’s endorsement of the person running against Donald Trump. The paper has no love for Secretary Clinton.

Of course, my responsibility for The State’s endorsements ended when I left the paper in 2009, but it remains a subject that highly interests me.

It was noted in the editorial that this was the first time the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president since 1976.

Someone – a person I’m pretty sure almost always votes Democratic [is that fair, Kathryn?] – asked on my blog why we endorsed all those Republicans. Which is a fair enough question to ask me, since I don’t like either party, and think they have both been enormously destructive to the country in recent decades.

I could only answer for the elections in the years when I was on the editorial board, so here goes:

In 1996, We liked Dole better than Clinton – although by the end, I had my doubts about Dole, and asked Tom McLean, who was then editor, to write it instead of me, which he did. But personally, I still voted for Dole.

In 2000 — We liked Bush better than Gore – as a board, anyway – personally I was rather noncommittal. I was lukewarm on Bush because I had much, much preferred John McCain to him, and had argued very strenuously for endorsing McCain in the primary. We had endorsed Bush instead, which was probably the biggest argument I ever lost as editorial page editor. Also… I worked in Tennessee in the 70s and 80s and got to know Al Gore, interacted with him a good bit, and liked him. But after eight years as Clinton’s vice president, I liked him less. On election night, I remember the lead changing back and forth, and at each point, I couldn’t decide how I felt. I only knew that when the Supreme Court decided Bush had won Florida, I was relieved, and grateful to Gore for promptly conceding at that point.

2004 — We disliked Kerry more than we disliked Bush (if you look back, you’ll see most of the editorial was about Bush’s flaws, but ultimately we didn’t trust Kerry on national security – and for me, that tends to trump everything)

2008 — My man John McCain was running, although we liked Obama a lot. That was really an unusual election for us at the paper. For once, the two candidates we had endorsed in their respective party primaries back at the start of the year faced each other in the general. So we were happy either way, but I had been waiting 8 years to endorse McCain, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance. Besides, Obama was untested. We trusted McCain’s experience.

In 2009, I was laid off from the paper for the sin of having too high a salary when the paper was desperate to cut costs. So I wasn’t involved in 2012, or this year.

Another way to explain our preference for Republicans over the years, a very simplistic one: we were essentially a center-right board, and as long as the GOP remained a center-right party and the national Democrats were so ideologically liberal, we would tend toward Republicans. But I don’t like that overly simple explanation because I don’t like the liberal OR conservative labels, and we prided ourselves on being pragmatic. [I then went on a brief digression of our official point of view, which we called, rather oxymoronically, “pragmatic conservatism.”]

This brings us to today.

The general thrust of the editorial page remains the same as in my day. The core of the editorial board is Cindi Scoppe, and the joke during our many years working together was that we were two people with the same brain. Of course, there are different people involved along with her (Mark Lett, Sara Borton, Paul Osmundson), but the general editorial positions remain the same.

And in this election cycle, the paper did the only thing it could do under the circumstances: It endorsed the only person on the planet in a position to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States.

As I said, the paper was pleased to endorse Republicans as long as it remained a sensible, center-right party. This year, the GOP completely went off the rails, and nominated a man who really isn’t any kind of conservative: an abysmally ignorant – and unwilling to learn – bully who considers attacking people who have criticized him personally as his top priority. A man who admires tyrants, who would abandon our allies, throw out nuclear nonproliferation policies that have served us since 1945, who plays to xenophobia, who would institute religious tests for entering the country, and the list goes on and on.

But that seems like a good place to stop and take questions. I’d love to get questions about local politics, but I can speak to national ones as well. Whatever y’all prefer…

My audience did not disappoint, but provided enough good questions to keep a likely interaction going until time was called. We pretty much stuck to national politics, which I guess was to some extent my fault, for having started us in that direction. But the discussion was interesting, relevant and civil. And you can’t beat that…

I thank my optometrist, Dr. Philip Flynn, for inviting me, and the Club for putting up with me this morning.

34 thoughts on “What I ended up saying to Rotary

  1. Bryan Caskey

    The lecture answered quite handsomely. However, my main regret was (being seated at the same table as Brad) I failed to lean across, look him directly in the eye and say:

    Warthen…may I trouble you for the salt?

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    So you just *had* to endorse McCain, even though he inflicted Sarah Palin on us?

    And Kerry has done an excellent job as Secretary of State. Bush, on the other hand, got us into unnecessary wars that have drastically compromised national security……

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Seems to me that “drastically compromised national security” is highly debatable.

      Also, “unnecessary wars,” plural? I know that many people consider the Iraq invasion to be “unnecessary” — and that’s a respectable, defensible position — but usually when folks speak of wars, plural, the second one they’re counting is Afghanistan.

      How was that unnecessary? Did we have a realistic alternative to going in and toppling the Taliban so that al Qaeda no longer had that safe haven? Should our response to 9/11 have been, “Oh, never mind?”

      If not Afghanistan, what? Libya? Yemen? Those are more on this administration than Bush…

  3. bud

    Seems to me that “drastically compromised national security” is highly debatable.

    See comment to Bryan.

  4. bud

    The Afghanistan was unnecessary since it we would not have needed to go in absent 9/11. Without the Bush incompetence there would not have been a 9/11. Therefore, yes, wars plural is appropriate. Sadly we focused too much on “earth tones” and “inventing the internet” nonsense and ended up with the worst POTUS in history. The same is happening today. We have this ridiculous nonsense about e-mails and Hillary’s health while a truly dangerous individual has become the leader of the GOP and therefore could win. Hillary is a fine person with a long history of serving her country honorably and competently.

  5. bud

    And by the way Brad, I’ve lost a great deal of respect for you over the last 48 hours. Since I first posed the question – Trump or Bernie – you’ve failed to answer. I’ve had your back for a while now basically acknowledging you are right about the extreme danger of Trump and all other considerations should be put aside. That silence seriously undermines your credibility.

    1. Mark Stewart

      Bud, that’s an irrelevant question. The only one that matters this year is Clinton or Trump, That’s it. Anything else – including Johnson, Stein, or Mickey Mouse – is not only a waste of time, it is actually the worst choice one can make: Being impacted by the outcome of an election in which one chose not to submit one’s vote. It is like “Jesus take the wheel”.

      The choice is Trump or Clinton. Everyone needs to vote that. This week.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I often fail to satisfy people when they ask about hypothetical situations, because I know my own discernment process too well. It takes being in the actual situation, for one thing.

        It’s easier for ideological people to give a snap answer when asked “Candidate A or Candidate B?” It’s tougher when you look closely at actual candidates.

        Of course, I could never, ever vote for or in any way express support for the candidacy of Donald Trump — for anything, much less president of the United States.

        And yes, if you think of it as a simple, mathematical problem, then of course the same math applies — if you MUST vote for Hillary to stop Trump, then you MUST vote for Bernie to stop Trump.

        But it’s more complicated than that.

        Bud wants me to say, “Of COURSE I’d vote for Bernie in that situation,” because the words “of course I’d vote for Bernie” sound natural and satisfying to him, whereas that would be a very difficult thing for me to bring myself to say. (And under the current circumstances, bad as they are, thank Goodness I don’t have to.)

        Hillary Clinton is a person who understands the job of president and has the qualifications for the job. Bernie is not. He’s certainly a very sincere fellow (and a better human being than Trump), but I don’t think he has a clear idea of what the presidency is. I think he thinks it’s a magic wand for implementing things that his ideology causes him to yearn for. He certainly has no notion of the president’s role as commander in chief, or in dealing with other nations. (Recall how upset his campaign was when national security questions were added to a debate because of the Paris attacks.)

        Also… if we were in that situation, I suspect the math would actually be different. If both major-party nominees were so unqualified (with, yes, Trump being worse, but both are unqualified), an independent or third-party option might be more viable. If someone like Evan McMullin had a chance of winning, which he might under those circumstances, then I’d probably urge people to vote for him instead of either Sanders or Trump.

        But it’s just so hard to know, not being in that situation…

        1. Doug Ross

          If Trump wins and DOESN’T cause the end of democracy as we know it, then what? What if he doesn’t start a war but is just a buffoon who gets voted out after 4 years of being rejected by Congress?

          You’ll look very silly at that point.

          But if he does get elected and drops a nuclear bomb on North Korea, then I’ll say you were right.

          1. Claus

            If Trump were to drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea, would it really matter much? The people of NK are so brainwashed into hating the US that the vast majority would slit our throats if the had the chance.

          2. Mark Stewart

            Or if Putin invades Poland – or China invades Taiwan (or the Phillipines)?

            Don’t sell short the mayhem buffoonery can cause on the world stage – especially when its fronting as President of the United States.

            It really isn’t a county councillor type position, Doug. It’s to represent us all – a global leadership position.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            And of course, there’s no way for you to know. It depends on whether he thinks Kim Jong Un is being nice to him.

            Your cavalier attitude over the complete degradation of our country just stuns me.

            1. Doug Ross

              Because it hasn’t happened and I don’t think it will. There is as much chance of Hillary being indicted before she is sworn in.

              I don’t worry about stuff that I can’t control.

        2. Doug Ross

          bud – I’d vote for Bernie over Trump… if I thought it meant he would win in SC. Otherwise I’d still vote Johnson… because Trump is going to win.

          1. Doug Ross

            I’ll take Bernie’s pie in the sky socialism over Hillary or Trump any day of the week. Especially his views on defense spending.

            Bernie would probably cost me more money tax wise but I wouldn’t mind paying more if it meant we pulled back from fighting endless wars with no chance of victory.

        3. Claus

          Brad, I can’t help but read in a sense of arrogance when I hear you talk about the political race, like you honestly believe that we’re all idiots if we don’t vote for the person you’re voting for. You may know more detail than the majority of us, but then personally I don’t center my life around reading about, associating with, admiring, looking forward to talking to or listening to, etc… anyone in political office. Probably because I don’t like to associate myself with pathological liars.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yeah, I can see how I could come across that way.

            Just as doctors, and even our lawyer friends, might seem arrogant when they explain something about medicine or the law.

            I don’t know as much about medicine as a physician, and while a working familiarity with the law has always been important to what I do, it’s nothing like a lawyer’s.

            Nor do I know much about accounting. And I’m not a professional baseball player or manager, so I’ll bow to the superior knowledge of Joe Maddon or Terry Francona. And when my car breaks down, I’m going to have to shell out money to a mechanic.

            But politics, and our system of government, and the fundamental principles of our representative democracy and the often disturbing facts of how it functions in real life, how it came to be this way and why — these things I know intimately. And it’s not just about “details,” but about something more important — I understand it. I understand how the pieces fit together, and how they work and what’s wrong when they break down.

            This why I moved from news to editorial in the early 90s, and quickly from editorial writer to editorial page editor, and held that position for 12 years (until my publisher decided he could no longer afford the price of someone with my ability and experience) — my understanding of these things and my ability to explain them was greater than that of most editors.

            These are simple assertions of fact. I’m not claiming to be the best editorialist in the world. I’m just saying that experience like mine doesn’t just happen. You have to demonstrate greater-than-usual aptitude at dealing with these issues.

            I’m sure you’re way better at what you do than I am. But while I’m no longer doing it for nice, big salary, I’m good at understanding our political system.

            And sometimes, when I’m explaining something I understand well, I’m sure it can sound like arrogance…

            1. Norm Ivey

              I’ve never found your views to be arrogant at all. I don’t always agree with you, but you explain and defend your position well enough that you give me cause to reflect on my own views.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Thanks, Norm. That’s the whole idea!

                It’s about the argument, and how it makes you THINK, whether you agree or not. It’s not, “Hey, you should think this because I’m telling you to.”

                Take endorsements: As I’ve always said, the important thing isn’t WHO is being endorsed, but the reasons offered as to WHY. The point being that while I don’t expect you, the reader, necessarily to vote for that person, your own decision will be better informed for being tested by being set alongside a coherent, informed case being made for one candidate or the other.

                It’s always about the quality of the argument….

                What sets off some of my interlocutors here is that they see such ADAMANT, insistent arguments against Donald Trump. And the very fact that I’m raising the alarm so loudly and insistently SHOULD be, in and of itself, cause for a reasonable person to go, Wow, Brad’s never been this adamant about anybody before — so what’s different about this case?

                (And just in case it’s not clear yet, what’s different is that, in my extensive experience, I have never once in my life seen anyone so spectacularly unfit for the most important job on the planet.)

                And the train of thought that should lead to should give anyone pause, at the very least…

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Fareed Zakaria sort of addressed the same thing today in The Washington Post, to explain the situation to people who still don’t get “why Donald Trump is worth special attention.”

                  The piece is headlined, “Why Donald Trump could never be a normal candidate.” And he makes the case well. An excerpt:

                  Donald Trump is different — not just because he is obnoxious, tacky and vulgar, or because his business dealings show him to be a scam artist. He is different because of what he believes.

                  The simplest way to understand Trump’s core beliefs is to look at his words and actions, not just today but well before. Politicians pander to voters, and Trump’s views on Social Security and Medicare (which he promises not to touch) and taxes (which he promises to cut) seem pretty insincere, reflections of what he thinks his supporters want to hear. But he does have deeper beliefs, values and instincts.

                  The first area that stands out is race. Trump has consistently expressed himself — in word and deed — in ways that can only be described as racist. In his earliest years as a developer, he was sued by the Justice Department for allegedly denying housing to qualified black people. In the case of the Central Park Five, Trump jumped into the public arena, taking out full-page ads assailing the accused black teenagers and demanding that “when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” Most strikingly, he refused to back down when DNA evidence had clearly exonerated the five men, and New York City was forced to pay $41 million in damages for wrongfully imprisoning them for up to 13 years.

                  Trump seems to believe in ethnic stereotypes deeply. He boasts of his own bloodline and compares it to breeding racehorses. In a 1991 book, one of his associates described him as horrified to see African Americans in his accounting department at two of his hotels, quoting Trump as saying, “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” Trump acknowledged the veracity of these comments in a later Playboy interview, before walking it back in a 1999 NBC interview, calling it “nonsense.”…

                  And so forth. You should read the whole thing

        4. bud

          So Brad, basically what you’re saying is this: “You absolutely must vote for Hillary in this election because any other choice means the end of the country as we know it. You MUST do this because Trump is just so very, very horrible that even if you find many things about Hillary objectionable and philosophically abhorrent the very survival of the nation is at stake! Any other choice is a reckless use of your vote.

          Now keep in mind if Bernie was the nominee then all this Armageddon talk would be less of a factor because Bernie doesn’t understand what being president is all about. It doesn’t matter that he’s served in elected office for decades including his current post as a United States Senator. None of that matters because he prefers to focus on the important domestic needs of the American people like jobs and income inequality rather than devote resources to worthless military crap and endless wars in the Middle East. We absolutely could not tolerate that kind of president so faced with that hypothetical choice I’d probably vote for some third party candidate or just sit this election out.”

          What a load of crap.

  6. bud

    Mark that is what is known as a truism (or maybe a tautology). I’m just pointing out that Brads argument would be much more persuasive if he had simply said something like this: “Even though I find Bernie Sanders to be anathema to every policy I believe in his basic human decency would have been enough to vote for him over Trump had he been the Dem nominee”. Brad has called out many on this blog in an exceptionally strident manner for NOT making the same calculus in this Trump v Clinton race.

  7. bud

    Bud wants me to say, “Of COURSE I’d vote for Bernie in that situation,” because the words “of course I’d vote for Bernie” sound natural and satisfying to him, whereas that would be a very difficult thing for me to bring myself to say.

    I realize it would be very hard for you to say that. That’s exactly my point. I’m trying to get you to empathize with people like Doug and Bryan who are actually wrestling with the same situation as you would face in Trump v Bernie.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Bryan might be “wrestling.” Doug is not. And there’s no way I can empathize with anyone who seems amused by the idea of a president Trump.

      I love my country and want to protect it. Doug thinks the country is so fouled up Trump can’t make it worse. No room for a meeting of the minds there. Which saddens me.

        1. Mark Stewart

          Of course it does. That’s true for everyone – well, those who actually choose between the two options.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            I know it “matters”. I’m actually taking our five-year-old son with me to the polling place on Tuesday so he can see voting for himself and understand the importance of it.

            1. Claus

              If you let him press any of the buttons its illegal. And for what other reason would a 5 year old want to go into a voting booth?

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