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LIVE from the Crosscut Festival: All the President’s Men

Good afternoon from Seattle University, Cascadia Advocate readers! I hope you are enjoying NPI’s live coverage of the Crosscut Festival.

The first panel I attended this afternoon was “All the President’s Men”, discussing what it is like to be in the inner circle of the President of the United States.

Panelists include David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush; David Litt, former special assistant and senior presidential speechwriter for President Barack Obama, and Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. The session was moderated by Greg Hanscom, the Executive Editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS affiliate.

Hanscom started by asking the panelists if they could imagine working for the White House now. McClellan answered with a resounding “no,” eliciting laughs. He said it is hard to imagine working there now and how chaotic it is.

McClellan joked that the President he worked for didn’t have Twitter, but if he worked at the White House now, he would have to be constantly checking the President’s Twitter account to be able to do his job.

Litt still lives in Washington, D.C. and said that the lack of a full staff of people working in the administration is surprising. He also said he has a neighbor that works at the White House who, a few days before the government was about to shut down, got home from work at 6:30PM, and he just couldn’t believe that everyone wasn’t working continuously to try to prevent the shutdown. He noted there is now “a culture of malice and a culture of not caring.”

Frum thought Litt’s last phrase was accurate and well put. He said he doesn’t feel like the people in the Trump administration are working for the American people in the way that people in previous administrations did.

Hanscom asked the panelist if, looking at the White House now, they ever ask themselves the question, “why did I try so hard?”

Litt replied that it is actually the opposite for him. “It doesn’t make me upset that I worked hard and took job the seriously,” he said. He added that ultimately the job is not about you as an individual, but about the impact you could have in the White House and in issues effecting people across the country.

McClellan pointed out that most people get into politics for the right reason. But he also said, “politics is the art of compromise, and that’s been lost.” He says that he and the people he worked with in the George W. Bush administration went to the White House to make a difference and get things done for the American people. He thinks it’s sad that the White House “can’t get things together now.”

Hanscom next brought up how the political establishment was broadsided by Trump’s popularity and ultimate election.  He asked the panelist what they think Trump understood about the American people that other political insiders didn’t.

Frum said that it was not so much that Trump understood American people but that he understood the Republican Party, and once he got the nomination, then it’s a 50/50 chance to become President. He says that a gap in the opinions of different factions in the Republican Party, with it roots in the fallout of the economic crisis of 2008-2009, left a space for Trump to fit in.

He noted that Trump took first place among Republican candidates in polling within three weeks of declaring his candidacy in 2015, and held the lead spot almost the entire time up through winning the GOP nomination. He says Trump saw the anger in part of the public, so he talked about de-industrialization, and talked about race and ethnicity “in vicious ways,” but that struck a chord with people.

Litt agreed with Frum’s analysis about Trump recognizing something about the Republican Party. He said he’s surprised that Trump became President but he is not surprised that there was a vacuum in the Republican Party that he was able to exploit. “Democrats were all saying that this was not normal and that the GOP was going off the rails.”

“Where do we go from here?” Hanscom asked.

“Trump exposed the moral vacuum within the Republican Party, politics and campaigning have taken over governance. George W. Bush and Obama both ran on a politics of uniting, and both ran into a buzzsaw.” He noted that Obama took a lot of his ideas directly from the GOP (the Affordable Care Act was based on Mitt Romney policy) in attempts to compromise, but “the GOP still ran screaming.”

“Can the GOP reclaim their moral center, or do we leave it behind and try something new?”

Frum noted that similar things are happening in other countries, so it is not just the United States. He said there is a generational loss of confidence in democracy, because democracy “stopped delivering the goods.” He says that is was essentially an accident of who happened to be in power at the time this is happening.

“Democrats, don’t congratulate yourself,” he said. “We got the disease, but the contagion is in the air.”

Frum also said that the party system has really changed since about 2000. He says politics and parties used to be based on one’s relationship to the means of production (owners vs. workers), but now it is a politics based on group identity. Just like the loss of confidence in democracy, this too is a global problem.

After Litt said that Trump’s election was not just like being on a roller coaster, but like being in a car accident, as things went in a direction that was not where intended, Frum offered a further analysis.

“You know how you’ll be on the highway and not as attentive as you should be, and the lights of an oncoming car jolt you to your attention?” he said. “And the adrenaline from that near miss gets you safely home.” He hopes that the Trump presidency will be a near miss that gets us, as a country, safely home.

When Hanscom asked McClellan, who worked for George W. Bush not just in the White House but back when Bush was Governor of Texas, if still identified as a Republican, McClellan gave a clear no.

He said he worked for Bush because he “saw hope there.” He voted for Obama for the same reason, he said. He did not vote for Trump. He says he believes in bipartisanship, and stresses that politics is not a zero sum game. He notes that Trump plays in to people’s worst fears, uses divisive tactics, and has zero sum beliefs. He believes the only thing holding up Trump now is the economy.

After McClellan said he still believes we can get back to bipartisanship, that the proverbial pendulum swings, Hanscom asked all the panelists what bright spots or silver linings they see.

Frum said he sees a bright spot in the rise of civic engagement, including events like the Crosscut Festival. He said this sad chapter “may make us better able to solve things by knocking the smugness out of us.”

He said jokingly that since he grew up Canadian, he doesn’t have that belief that Americans do that everything will always turn out okay, just because this is America.

McClellan said that he sees the silver lining in the students at Seattle University, where he has been Vice President for Communications since 2012, in his young sons, and in the increase in civic engagement across the county.

Litt offered an answer along similar lines. He said he is pleasantly surprised that as he talks to young people at book signings across the county that people are not cynical or detached like he was expecting. Rather, he is hearing people talk about volunteering, running for office, and getting involved.