My father covered the White House for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the Second World War, in Franklin Roosevelt’s third term. He and the other reporters would crowd around FDR’s desk in the Oval Office and throw questions at him—softballs mostly, about battlefronts abroad and government at home. The president—whom my father revered as a great man and satirized as a hambone who talked like W.C. Fields, if Fields had gone to Harvard—would put on a performance. He would wag his great head and flourish his cigarette in the ivory cigarette holder so that the blue smoke curled in a helix about his head while he improvised, as it were, upon his clarinet and violin and slide trombone.
My father, whose military service was delayed because he had a wife and two young sons, would soon vanish into the Navy. My uncles, still kids themselves, would go ashore at Anzio or push with Patton’s Third Army toward the Rhine. Uncle Bill fought as an 18-year-old rifleman in the Battle of the Bulge. When his position was overrun, he played dead among the fallen Americans as the Germans passed among them, shooting the wounded.
The men were gone from the home front. Every family feared the telegram. Up and down the street, star flags hung in windows to signal that a husband or brother or father was off in the service, in another part of the world; a gold star meant that he had died out there. A man down the street manufactured Purple Hearts. His son showed me and my brother a tray of them, arranged neatly in a box so that they looked like mint candies. It occurred to me years later that perhaps he had stolen the Purple Hearts to sell on the black market—for why would a man have trays of Purple Hearts stashed in the back of his bedroom closet? And what kind of swine would buy a Purple Heart on the black market?
Flash forward to the 1960s, when my best friend at the Washington Star, a now defunct paper, was Carl Bernstein. We were dictation typists and fledgling reporters, covering murders and fires and looking for trouble on $50 a week. John Kennedy was recently dead, and Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. The American war in Vietnam was getting started. One day in 1964, there was phantom violence in the Gulf of Tonkin. Presently would come the doubt that grew into a national mistrust that would spread like a cancer and would, in time, bring down two presidents, Johnson and then Richard Nixon, whose resignation (amazingly enough) would owe a significant something to my buddy Carl.
The media versus the president: in the mid-1960s, from remote Saigon, a few reporters—David Halberstam of the New York Times and others—reported facts on the ground that differed radically, bitterly, from the account of the war that the American command unfolded to reporters late each afternoon in briefings that became known as the “Five O’clock Follies.”
Now it’s 2020, and Americans are again engaged in a great double war—against a pandemic this time, but also, as before, against one another, against other Americans. People mistakenly hoped that the coronavirus might put a stop to America’s cold civil war that started a long time ago and seems to be as chronic and obdurate as the one between Protestants and Catholics in sixteenth-century France. If anything, however, the war may become more bitter, as it involves haves against have-nots, physical workers against virtual workers, and masses of the unemployed against everyone else.
Meantime, Trump—the “wartime president”—stands at a podium before a roomful of the sullen and socially distanced White House press corps. Some of his media critics refer to these as Trump’s Five O’clock Follies, though fewer of us now recognize the historical reference and draw a line back through time to MACV headquarters, out by Tan Son Nhut airport.
My father and his colleagues in the press liked Franklin Roosevelt. The reporters knew that FDR shaded the truth and sometimes lied. But they trusted him in a larger—patriotic—sense, because Americans knew they were all in the war together and that Roosevelt was indispensable and more or less permanent. The reporters felt protective of him, even tender. They abetted him in concealing his 12-pound metal leg braces and the little wheels on his chair. White House photographers did not take pictures of him being lifted in and out of cars. They were on his side. There was a world war to be won—and anyway, Roosevelt knew them well and jollied them along.
The White House press is not on Donald Trump’s side. He denounces them, to their faces, as “fake news.” A performer by instinct, Trump brings a chair and a whip to the circus; reporters growl and rake the air with their claws and argue (“but-but-but”) and try to talk over him, as if he were an obnoxious boor at the end of the bar—until he raises a forefinger and says, “Enough!” and swivels his gaze elsewhere.
Next morning, Mika and Joe will be beside themselves, pouring boiling oil down from the battlements of MSNBC upon the barbarian Trump. Morning Joe’s entire ensemble cast (Valiant Sir Willie Geist and the rest, and the preachers Jon Meacham and Eddie Glaude of Princeton, and “The Rev,” as Joe calls him—Al Sharpton, Duke of Brawley) will be dropping boulders from the parapets upon Trump and his unwashed tribe. Joe Scarborough’s indignant voice—almost soprano, almost hysterical—will rise in arias of denunciation.
And the war will go on. And so will the coronavirus.