We have never seen lying in a presidency like the levels reached under Donald Trump. That assessment came Thursday from journalist Carl Bernstein, someone who has seen a lot of lying come out of the White House.
“What we are going through now is very different than anything before, including Watergate,” Bernstein said during a speech at the Durango Public Library as part of its Literary Festival. Bernstein and Bob Woodward were the primary reporters covering Watergate for The Washington Post.
Historically, the basic notion among Americans of the press is that it exists for the public good and not merely to make money and to entertain. And at the bottom of the mission, Bernstein said was the press’s chief function to strive for “the best attainable version of the truth.”
“It’s what real reporting is. It’s what investigative reporting is about,” he said.
However, he currently sees a country “where the systems are straining and struggling, in journalism, in politics and in the larger culture.”
His somber take on current affairs is that the country is in a “period of a cold civil war.”
He said it is a situation that Trump did not bring about, but said Trump has brought the cold civil war to “an ignition point.”
“He has separated the country into his supporters and opponents,” Bernstein said. And he has characterized the press as “the enemy of the people” and called it “fake news.”
The characterization, Bernstein said, is effective among his supporters, and he noted that journalists have made mistakes ignoring long-serving rules of objectivity, fairness and accuracy that have left the media more vulnerable to Trump’s broadsides.
He cautioned working reporters that veering from practicing the standards of objectivity, fairness and accuracy comes only at their peril, and he added that news gathering should be done with a strong sense of “humility, fairness and perseverance.”
But the larger problem in the political scene today Bernstein blamed on Republicans.
A large problem, he said, is the acceptance of the lying from the Trump administration by his own party.
Bernstein said many in the GOP have largely abandoned their efforts to strive to find “the best available version of the truth.”
“It’s jarring to the ear. It’s jarring to the psyche to hear the president of the United States lie about damn near everything,” he said.
He said each day brings a new story that would have largely incapacitated past presidents, but seemingly “we’re numbed by them and the outrageousness and the untruths.”
During Watergate, Bernstein said the system worked, and that is a big difference from the current state of Washington today under Trump.
President Richard Nixon’s fall was largely determined by Republicans, he noted.
“To a large extent, a consensus emerged among many Republicans that what had been done had nothing to do with being a Republican president but had become everything to do with being a criminal president,” Bernstein said.
The vote to form the Watergate Committee was 77-0.
“Can you imagine a 77-0 vote today in the Senate?” he said.
He noted that it was Sen. Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, who asked the question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
He said that type of openness to changing your political views based on emerging facts has become almost unheard of in Washington.
He noted that it was a delegation of Republican senators, led by Barry Goldwater, who met with Nixon to inform him he didn’t have enough votes to avoid impeachment, and furthermore, he didn’t have any of the votes of the senators who were at the table.
Again, Bernstein said, similar events occurring today are hard to envision.
“It’s hard for all of us to appreciate the reality of this new cold civil war,” he said.
Beyond Washington, he added that individuals themselves seem less committed to finding their own best available version of the truth.
“The best attainable version of the truth today is far different than it was 40 years ago or even 25 years ago,” he said. “We have people who are not looking for facts. They are looking for information that buttresses their own version of the truth, and they are less committed to finding the best attainable version of the truth.”
He said it is an affliction that is happening on both sides of the political divide.
“If we can’t have a fact-based debate that’s open to the truth, it’s very hard to see how we as a country continue to move forward,” he said.