No sooner do you remember never to join a pile-on than you wonder if you shouldn’t start one. Bill O’Reilly’s departure this week from Fox News is a real blow to piggishness, and I believe that must be said. He has denied all allegations, but the number of them over the years, and the $13 million in reported payouts, suggests a clear and obvious pattern of sexual harassment. This follows the retirement of Roger Ailes, who left under a similar cloud. I don’t know what was in the water over there, but it wasn’t good, it was poisonous, and I’m glad they’re doing environmental cleanup.
A lot of life is murky. Good things can come from mixed motives, bad things from clean ones. You can hold in your head the knowledge that all prominent conservatives are, essentially, a target in a media matrix dominated by ideological views that are not conservative—isn’t that a nice way to say it?—and yet be happy something bad has been thwarted. You can be aware that the exposé that triggered Mr. O’Reilly’s fall came in the form of a deeply reported piece in this newspaper’s chief competitor—it is the second-greatest newspaper in America—and you can suspect its focus on a Fox News star was fueled, at least in part, by both animal spirits and ideological animus. But you can still feel satisfaction that a culture of looking the other way has for the moment been defeated.
And again, this ought to be said. It is not conservative to be a pig. It is piggish to be a pig. You owe pigs nothing. So say the obvious.
We thus segue to the observation that Republican officeholders should by now have figured out how to speak about our ever-interesting president, and most have not. They think since he is a Republican and they are Republican, they must defend him on all things. They are looking at it wrong. He is Donald Trump. He is not “a Republican.” He is a wholly unusual historical figure who happened to them, and who now heads their party. They owe him an eager and open-minded willingness to work with him, to create helpful legislation, to join in debate and support him on areas of mutual conviction. They do not owe him a thing in terms of covering for his gaffes or oddnesses, mistakes or failures. They should not defend him on his tax returns unless they think he is right not to reveal them. They should not defend him on his refusal to make public the White House visitor’s logs—unless, bizarrely, they think that constitutes good public policy.
Being loyal isn’t being a lickspittle.
The president has a base of support. They’re with him and will give him time before they detach—if they detach. They hope for big, serious changes in policy. But they are not children. They are not unaware of his faults and weaknesses. Treat them with respect by speaking to them like adults.
Make clear you want to work with Mr. Trump but won’t cover for him. If the president doesn’t like it, and lashes out, so what? He’ll tweet that you’re not attractive. Laugh and say: “That’s what my mother said. But I have great hopes we can work together to reform our tax system. Best, Unattractive Tom.”
The first to break the code has been Iowa’s junior senator, Joni Ernst. This week she was back home doing her 99-county tour. In a community center in Wall Lake she was peppered with questions about Mr. Trump. Asked about his showy meetings with foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago, she gently replied: “I do wish he would spend more time in Washington, D.C. That is what we have the White House for.” She conceded his “character flaws.” She said she supports “a majority of the policies versus the actual person.”
In a telephone interview this week she noted there was no “secret meaning” in her Mar-a-Lago criticism. “He spends too much money coming and going, and if we’re preaching about spending, we need to be following that.” One of the first questions in Wall Lake came from an anti-Trump constituent. He asked Ms. Ernst about “your president.” She responded, “It is our president. Mike Pence is our vice president.” She added, “Just as Barack Obama was my president and my commander in chief.” A man asked how she could support a president who treats women as he does. “I said we would be hard pressed to find a president who doesn’t have flaws, I can’t excuse him.”
She is not, she told me, distancing herself from the president. “I’m just pointing out what I’ve observed in response to honest questions Iowans are asking. He’s my president. I will work with him. But we have to be honest, he is a flawed human being, just like everyone else.”
I close with a connected thought, on the president’s tweets. He hasn’t tweeted anything crazy lately, but he surely will again. He seems to grow anxious when he has an unexpressed thought. The next time he does it, reporters will rush as they always do to administration officials and Republican members of Congress, and demand a response.
Staffers and Hill people have mostly felt personally, professionally and politically obliged to refrain from criticizing the tweets.
They should stop feeling that way. They should not try to explain and defend. It does them no good—and it does him no good.
Staffers, throw yourself on the grenade. When pressed for a response, try: “Those of us who care about the president are often puzzled by his tendency to send out these sometimes strange and obnoxious thoughts. I wish he wouldn’t. You’ll have to ask him about it in the next press conference. I myself don’t do tweet commentary. I leave that to you.” If you are a congressman or senator and the president decides to tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Miss Universe or Kim Jong Un, consider saying this: “You’ll have to take that up with the president. I think he sounds like a fool.”
If you’re a staffer and say that, you’ll get fired. But you’ll have shown some style and helped the country. You’ll for the first time get some respect, and will be able to support your family and go on to a good living while having rescued your reputation. The first paragraph of your obituary, years hence, will say you were fired for speaking the truth, not that you were embarrassing back in the Trump era.
It will help the president. He doesn’t really like to do things he knows will hurt him, but he has a hard time retaining the information that his tweets have that effect. He thinks they helped make him president and help him govern. He’s wrong. After the first firing he’ll realize there’ll be a price to the second and third.
When being loyal involves not stating obvious truths, maybe you’re being loyal to the wrong thing.
Being truthful is moral and good. It comes, for both speaker and listener, as a refreshment. Or in the practical, strategic language political figures respect, candor is the new cleverness. Everyone’s had it with evasions and circumlocutions. Stop. Say it true and keep walking.