I’ve spent the past three decades or so studying, rather deeply, the time of our nation’s Founders and the challenges they faced. Not long after the Constitution itself was ratified, the nascent states ratified the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing certain fundamental rights. It wasn’t at all clear to the founding generation that our nation would survive, let alone prosper, but happily, for all our faults, we havethrived, and our Constitution is now the longest surviving written constitution in world history. Pretty neat, eh? And as is so often the case, when I read about today’s politics, both here in Colorado and around the nation, I cannot help but reflect on what our Founders might say about today’s politics. I’m not entirely sure they would be pleased.
Mr. Jefferson would look at our Colorado and be happy, I think. First, Jefferson’s love of geometry and mathematics would endear our symmetrically-shaped home to his heart. But he would also enjoy seeing what state governments have done as laboratories of democracy. I suspect he’d support the legalization of marijuana – in fact I think he’d be surprised that it was ever outlawed.
Mr. Hamilton, on the other hand, didn’t think much of state governments having too much power. He’d prefer that the laws under which you live do not change if you cross a state border.
Nonetheless, I do think that Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton would agree, fundamentally, whether a president should control the media. The answer would be no, and that is a lesson that our current president needs very badly to take to heart.
Back during George Washington’s second term as president, his popularity took a bit of a dip – hard to believe, I know – and there were some nasty political cartoons attacking our now-sainted first POTUS. One rather aggressive anti-Washington publisher sent the president a half-dozen copies of his latest screed against old George, to which Washington is said to have raged, “does he think I’m his damned distributor?” So even the greatest and most vital American of all – George Washington – took abuse from a free and open press.
Which is why, dear readers, you should have been quite taken aback, or perhaps even a bit terrified, when President Trump tweeted what he did about Saturday Night Live’s opening bit last Friday. The sketch in question used the premise of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life,to parody Mr. Trump, by supposing a world in which he had never been elected. Your own senses of humor and politics will help you to decide if the bit was funny or not, but everyone,should have been horrified when Mr. Trump tweeted,
“A REAL scandal is the one-sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?
Now, we’ve been told that the president’s tweets are, in fact, “official statements by the president.” In fact, the Department of Justice even issued a legal opinionconfirming that fact. So, what are we to take from this latest attack on a free press?
I was hoping for outrage, but far too many Republicans – and that core subset that is Mr. Trump’s never-say-die base – have adopted the view that as long as Mr. Trump puts conservative judges in courts and keeps cutting regulations and taxes, they will put up with comments that are, in fact, truly un-American, such as calling for the federal courts to have some say in what type of comments, jokes and parodies about a president are legal (spoiler alert: ALL types are protected). For those who agree with Mr. Trump, and feel he shouldbe able to limit free speech, I ask if you would feel the same way if, say, someone whose name rhymes with “pillory Hinton” had won the last election?
The simple fact that my editor here at Colorado Politics, with whom I disagree on quite a few political matters, is supportive of publishing my fish-wrappers twice a week, and that the government has not tried to stop me, are both very good signs. Here in Colorado at least, the press remains free. But I worry about a nation that tolerates a president calling for censorship of his critics. Pendulums swing both ways, and supporters of near-unlimited presidential control of the press might be in for an unhappy surprise in coming years. Better to be like George Washington, and ignore cartoons.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.