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Speaking to a sold out room at Trinity University’s Policy Maker Breakfast on April 5, veteran newsman and broadcaster Bob Schieffer began his remarks by answering the question on everyone’s mind.
“No, I have never in my entire life seen anything like this,” Schieffer said.
He was referring, of course, to the unprecedented campaign of Donald Trump, in which the controversial Republican candidate has only gained momentum from what would have been considered campaign-ending gaffs in previous years.
The comment drew a laugh, but it launched Schieffer into a serious discussion of the dire state of American politics. With 58 years of reporting experience – including 46 years at CBS News – the former moderator of Face the Nation has seen a lot. Schieffer has interviewed every president since Richard Nixon and has moderated three presidential debates. Schieffer is one of the few journalists to have covered all four major beats in Washington, D.C. – the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and Capitol Hill. He’s not being glib when he says that the 2016 campaign is truly something new.
“This campaign reflects the age we live in,” Schieffer said. “We go from the inane to the profane.”
He compared campaign discourse to the comment section on the blogs and social media sites driving the dialogue, and lamented a communications climate in which blatant falsehoods generated by new media can derail conversations and monopolize the time of genuine journalism.
Scheffer’s talk was the fourth and final installment of the 35th year of the Policy Maker Breakfast Series. The goal of the series, which began before Trinity had the robust schedule of public engagement events it now hosts, is to engage the business community in discussions of finance, politics, business, and media. The packed room yielded thoughtful questions, proving that a hunger still exists for earnest dialogue on real issues. Such conversations, however, are no longer dominant on the national stage.
“We’ve got to start getting young people interested in politics again. We’ve got to get serious people interested in politics again,” Schieffer said.
He pointed to the lucrative cottage industry of campaign management and political maneuvering as a source of cynicism, keeping true believers and a motivated electorate at bay. In addition to breeding cynicism, it keeps good people from running for office. They see politicians spending up to 60% of their time fundraising, calling up strangers to beg for money. No one wants to do that, he said.
“Serious people no longer want anything to do with politics.”
Some of this discontent, he said, has led to the rise of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who reflect the frustration with Washington’s gerrymandered and over-financed status quo.
“(Sanders is a) perfectly nice man, I’ve interviewed him many many times, but he is way out there,” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, suffers from what Schieffer called an “excitement deficit.”
If the two apparent front runners, Trump and Clinton, do end up facing off in the general election, it will be the first time that voters choose between two candidates with higher disapproval rates than approval rates.
While the Democrats might be facing an uphill battle, Schieffer predicts something far more grim for the Republican Party.
“I’m wondering if the Republican Party is about to come apart,” he said.
He compared the current situation to the Democratic situation in 1968, when the party “tore itself apart” at the national convention and then sealed its fate by nominating George McGovern, a candidate far outside his party’s mainstream, in 1972.
If the Republican convention descends in to games of brinksmanship and public protests, he wonders doubtfully if the party will be able to reunite its increasingly disparate factions, the Tea Party and the mainstream conservatives. “I think it’s going to get really, really ugly (if the nomination is contested).”
The small glimmers of hope Schieffer sees in the Republican party are in leaders like U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose reluctance to take on the role of Speaker of the House (a reluctance with Schieffer believes was genuine), speaks well of his desire to simply do a job in Washington. He feels that a Ryan/John Kasich ticket would be the Republican’s only chance of winning a general election this year.
In the media briefing after the breakfast, Schieffer sat with a room of young journalists from local news sources, and talked about social media, and its role in journalism and democracy.
“Journalism is about telling the truth,” he said. “Every news organization has an obligation to do that.”
Social media has a great responsibility to further that cause, simply because of the wide audience it reaches. At the same time, social media has exposed the basic needs all Americans share: survival, security, and hope. Politicians have been able to leverage those needs in a way that divides Americans.
As new media becomes standard technology, Schieffer is confident that it can become more civilized and effective in the right hands.
He is also hopeful that serious young people will find a way back into politics if they can find avenues where their engagement is effective. For instance, local government can be more gratifying than national politics.
“People have to feel like they can make a difference,” he said.
*Top image: Bob Schieffer. Photo courtesy of CBS.