Writing about politics when the stories keep on changing

Writing a weekly column often devoted to national politics when the story line changes every half hour can be something of a challenge. 

There was the sharing of intelligence with the Russians as TASS photographers recorded the event closed to the American press. 

Or the allegation that the former FBI chief has notes indicating President Trump tried to get him to walk away from investigating Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia and therefore, what Flynn — and Putin — may have on Trump. 

Then we had the announcement of the appointment of a respected special counsel that was greeted by both Democrats and Republicans getting tired of all this. 

And that was only up to Wednesday.

But the president, always so generous with story ideas, made a commencement address that same day with the theme, “but enough about you in the Class of ’17, let’s talk about me.”

After a few words of kindness for the graduates, Trump made the claim that no politician in history had been treated as badly by the press as he. 

Well, not really.

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon quickly come to mind, along with Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton and quite a few more. 

 Even the sainted Thomas Jefferson, who said that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, (he) should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.” But as president, he also said that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

And as Peggy Noonan noted in The Wall Street Journal, Lincoln, in his first 100 days, got secession, civil war and a daily pounding from an abolitionist press that thought he didn’t go far enough.

“Then someone shot him in the head.” If the president knew that critics recommended shooting politicians from time to time in our history, he might not have been so quick to claim being the most abused politician in history. But then, he likes to say he’s the most or the biggest or the best everything.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, William Randolph Hearst’s sensational newspapers thrived in the nation’s largest cities, providing millions with their only source of information. Hearst, who had presidential ambitions, was a Democrat until he — and his newspapers — turned conservative Republican. 

Over the years, his Democratic and Republican papers employed three prominent writers who actually advocated shooting politicians.

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During Republican President William McKinley’s first term, the governor of Kentucky was shot and when the deadly bullet couldn’t be found, Hearst writer Ambrose Bierce poetically suggested the bullet was “speeding here/to stretch McKinley on his bier.”

Then, in April 1901, a couple of weeks after McKinley’s second inauguration, all of the Hearst newspapers — in New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and a dozen other cities — published an editorial on what a historian later called the felicitous consequences of political assassinations.

“If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”

The following September, McKinley was assassinated, and Hearst’s rivals accused him and his editor, Arthur Brisbane, of inspiring the assassination. They said it wasn’t so, pointing out the assassin couldn’t read English.

Hearst’s Republican papers also published the columns of Westbrook Pegler, one of the most popular and widely read columnists in the last century. Pegler, a master of mean-spirited prose, is remembered mostly for his attacks on Franklin Roosevelt and especially his wife, Eleanor, whom Pegler liked to call “la boca grande,” or big mouth. 

In February 1933, a month before FDR’s inauguration, an assassin attempted to kill the president-elect while he was speaking in a Miami park. The shot was wild and it struck and killed Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago.

“He hit the wrong man,” wrote Pegler.

After Hearst’s death, his heirs parted company with Pegler and later in life, writing for the extremist Birch Society, he turned his venom toward the Kennedys. In 1965, two years after John Kennedy’s assassination, Pegler made this vile prediction concerning Robert:

“Some white patriot of the southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.” Robert Kennedy was shot and killed while campaigning for president in 1968.

We offer this perspective while acknowledging that President Trump, like so many of those before him, has been subjected to harsh, sometimes unfair criticism but certainly not “worse or more unfairly than any politician in history.” 

But this is what might be expected from “a frail mortal whose passions and weaknesses are those of a spoiled child, a despot.” That’s what a Philadelphia editorial said — not about Trump — but about George Washington, as he ended his presidency. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.