Reporter's Notebook

2020 Time Capsule
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2020 Time Capsule #8: ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’

General William Westmoreland. Bettmann / Getty

In the second of his two extended live-TV performances yesterday—a White House coronavirus update, following a Fox News “virtual town hall”—Donald Trump said that prospects in the effort to control the virus were improving. As you can see starting at time 2:30 of this C-Span video, he said:

I’m very proud to be your president, I can tell you that.

There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and see light at the end of the tunnel.

Most of today’s living Americans were born in 1980 or afterward. (The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38.) Most of them would not instantly recognize the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,”

But Donald Trump was born in 1946, and he would know this phrase. During his teenaged years and his early 20s, when hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries were being drafted for service in Vietnam, and when more than 50,000 of them were killed, those words were among the most infamous parts of the American lexicon. Like “it became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it”—a possibly apocryphal phrase attributed to a U.S. military officer, about the scorched-earth policy—“light at the end of the tunnel” came to symbolize the sustained folly of the war in general, and the illusion that success was near at hand.

The closest post-Vietnam examples would probably be early proclamations about the Iraq war: Dick Cheney’s pre-war assurance that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and George W. Bush’s triumphal appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Or, early in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Among pre-Vietnam examples, a counterpart might be Neville Chamberlain in 1938, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and then returning home to declare that they had ensured “peace for our time.”

During and after the Vietnam war, “light at the end of the tunnel” became so familiar and polarizing that one of the most publicized libel suits of the era, in which four-star General William Westmoreland sued CBS News for $120 million, centered on these very words. As the New York Times reported during the trial, in 1984:

Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a lawyer for CBS argued yesterday over one of the most memorable phrases of the Vietnam War, with the lawyer suggesting that the general had misled Washington into believing there was “light at the end of tunnel” in 1967 and the general saying he had not used that expression.

“I never had quite that degree of optimism,” General Westmoreland told the jury at his libel trial against CBS in Federal Court in Manhattan.

But the lawyer, David Boies, showed the witness a Nov. 26, 1967, cable he had sent during a visit to Washington to his deputy in Saigon, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, in which the phrase “some light at the end of the tunnel” was bracketed in quotation marks.

People of my parents’ generation would hesitate or catch themselves before “peace for our time.” News-conscious people of my children’s generation would recognize the freight that comes with saying “mission accomplished” or “heck of a job”

And people of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that “light at the end of the tunnel” is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, “I am not a crook” if you wanted to convey genuine innocence. You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.

The typically young members of a White House speechwriting staff—the people who worked on the script from which Trump read yesterday—would not know this phrase from their own experience. But in normal White Houses, they would have looked these things up. (When I worked, in my 20s, on a White House speechwriting staff, our “spare time” reading was from the volumes of past presidential addresses.)

But Trump himself would have to have been familiar with this phrase. So yesterday, as he saw the note cards, did he see the phrase—and not remember it? Did he remember, and not care? I don’t know, and it doesn’t make a difference in his response to the current pandemic. But it is one more illustration of things we have heard and seen, which we would never have seen before.


Two other for-the-record elements from Trump’s public performances yesterday.

  • With several of his scientific experts behind him, explained how much worse the 1918 flu pandemic was:

“That was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying.”

In fact, the mortality rate during that devastating worldwide illness was between 2 and 3 percent—not around 50 percent, as Trump claimed. Most of the experts around Trump knew better; none of them said anything. I can’t quickly think of a case of another president making such a wildly inaccurate basic-fact claim, without a quick “For the record, the president meant to say...” cleanup.

  • Three times yesterday, Trump said that his goal for “opening up the country” again was Easter Day.

    • During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
      It’s such an important day for other reasons. I’ll make it an important day for this too I would love to have the country opened up an rarin’ to go by Easter.”
    • After the town hall, he said: “Easter’s a very special day for me. And I see it in that timeline I am thinking about. And I say, Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full.”
    • And when answering press questions about “why Easter?” later in the day: “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful timeline.”

This year’s Easter Day is April 12, or 19 days after Trump’s announcement. As of yesterday afternoon, while Trump was talking about the Easter “timeline,” the official confirmed-case count for the United States was nearing 47,000, and the death toll was in the low 600s. I’ll note in this space where the numbers stand 19 days from now.

President Trump gives his pen to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after signing the coronavirus relief package. Associated Press

Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.

The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”

All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.

We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).

So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.

What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s fact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)

Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book On Bullshitbears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.

Larger-than-life-sized oil painting of Trump at Mar-a-Lago, as I saw it when attending a foreign-policy conference there a dozen years ago. (James Fallows)

In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.

“The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:

[We have] as president-elect a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care….

Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.

None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.

In that item, “A Reflexive Liar in Command,” and then a follow-up, “Dealing with Trump’s Lies,” I set out press guidelines for the time ahead. The first one was:

1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], The Washington Post and The LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”...

By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.

What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.


It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.

I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.

To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.

1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.

After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)

Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.

Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.

Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”

2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.

Trump was asked what he meant about being “appreciative.” His answer (as you can see starting at time 24:00 of this C-SPAN video):

“Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—

“A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…  

In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’

“I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…

“Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.

“Don’t call the woman in Michigan….

“You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

What would have made news about this passage in any other era?

  • First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
  • Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
  • Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”

There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.

3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)

Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.

Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.

Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.

In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
  

4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.

Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.

Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.


The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.

Alexander Drago / Reuters

At his rally/press conference this evening, March 29, Donald Trump effectively said that doctors and hospitals in New York are selling masks “out the back door,” accounting for current shortages.

You can see it for yourself here, on this C-SPAN video, starting at time 12:00. Trump notes the shortage of masks and says:

Something’s going on. And you ought to look at it as reporters.

Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?

Through his public career, Trump has been notable for his projection, in the psychologists’ sense of that term. What he is aware of in himself is what he claims to detect in others.

For instance: He has a long history of making up “sources”—his posing as “John Miller” in leaks to New York reporters back in his real estate days, and in his “lots of people are saying” stories. Thus he accuses reporters of doing the same. His own children are dealt into his business arrangements. Thus this is his point of attack against Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.

If you asked most Americans why emergency rooms and ICUs might be running short of masks, the last possibility they would think of is that the masks were “going out the back door.” We are talking about doctors, nurses, and medical staff working around the clock in increasingly difficult circumstances. We are talking about hospital administrators now thinking about beds, ventilators, space in temporary morgues. All of these health staffers are coping with sick and dying people, while wondering when they, themselves, might get the disease.

It had not even occurred to me that people like these might be skimming off masks and selling them.

But this is what occurred to Donald Trump.

Projection. It’s something he might have thought of himself.


This afternoon, Trump put out a tweet that rivaled “out the back door” in its bottomless lack of empathy. He said:

From Twitter.

Trump is a problem, but clearly he cannot help himself. No one who could talk about his personal ratings, when the public was dealing with economic collapse and mounting deaths, would do this if he had any sense of empathy, decency, or impulse control.

The 53 Republicans who control the Senate could do something on the country’s behalf.

But the number who have spoken up about Trump’s descent these past few days?

Zero, as far as I can tell.

Navy Captain Brett Crozier, shown last year aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Navy / Reuters

The episode I’m about to mention has been receiving saturation social-media attention for the past few hours, as I write. But because the accelerating torrent of news tends to blast away each day’s events and make them hard to register—even a moment like this, which I expect will be included in histories of our times—I think it is worth noting this episode while it is fresh.

Until a few days ago, Brett Crozier would have been considered among the U.S. Navy’s most distinguished commanders.

He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and then entered training as a naval aviator. He was qualified first as a helicopter pilot, and then in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter planes. He was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz during the Iraq war, and he held an ascending series of staff and command jobs—as you can read in his Pentagon biography, here. He received a master’s degree from the Naval War College; he became executive officer (second in command) of the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan; and he became commander of the amphibious ship Blue Ridge. Then late last year, as a Navy captain, he took command of the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 4,000-plus people in its crew.

Last week, coronavirus sickness spread rapidly among the Roosevelt’s crew members. Five days ago, on Sunday, Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle published an email by Crozier, addressed to his naval superiors, asking that the ship be diverted from its normal duties so that sick crew members could be treated and the spread of disease could be slowed. Gafni and Garofoli did not say how they had received the email, but it had been copied to a large number of recipients and not marked as sensitive; Crozier must have known it was likely to become public when he sent it.

The four-page letter, which you can read in full at the Chronicle’s site, used the example of recent cruise-ship infection disasters to argue that closed shipboard environments were the worst possible location for people with the disease. It laid out the case for immediate action to protect the Roosevelt’s crew, and ended this way:

7. Conclusion. Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. A portion of the crew (approximately 10%) would have to stay aboard to run the reactor plant, sanitize the ship, ensure security, and provide for contingency response to emergencies.

This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care...

This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors. Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.

“Breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” “We are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors.” “Unnecessary risk.” In any walk of life, such language would have great power. Within the military—where terms like “faith” and “trust” and “care” have life and death meaning, and are the fundamental reason people follow leaders into combat—these words draw the starkest possible line. This course is right. The other course is wrong. Thus a leader spoke on behalf of the people “entrusted to our care.”


The letter got widespread attention in the press, and became a PR problem for the Pentagon and the administration. A commander was in effect saying that the command structure was mis-serving the troops; the command structure was not amused.

  • Yesterday, April 2, four days after the letter’s appearance, the acting secretary of the Navy formally relieved Crozier of command of the Theodore Roosevelt. That is, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary who was himself a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, fired Crozier from one of the most consequential command roles in the Navy. Crozier’s offense, according to Modly, was exercising “extremely poor judgment” in letting his plea become public. Also, Crozier’s letter had “unnecessarily raised the alarm of the families of our sailors and Marines.” Modly was quoted in Stars and Stripes saying that the letter “creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.” A commander had gone outside channels and created a “perception” problem.
      
  • Last night, soon after Crozier had been “relieved,” he took his last walk off the ship as commander, down a gangway to the dock in Guam. As he left, the men and women serving with him signaled where their respect and loyalties lay. Videos that, based on current information, appear to be authentic, showed the crew heralding him on his departure, with supportive cheers of “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” This account from Stars and Stripes gives a sample. Based on information available as I write, it appears that he took a stand, and is paying the price.

Brett Crozier will no longer be one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders. He remains in the service, but his command has been taken away.

He will likely be remembered among its leaders