Seventeen months into the presidency of Donald Trump, television’s still trying to find its footing in a story that seems to change hour to hour, tweet to tweet.
Roseanne Conner of ABC’s rebooted Roseanne and the woman who plays her both support the president — and the character is addicted to pain pills. Virulently anti-Trump litigator Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), after moving from CBS’s The Good Wife to CBS All Access’ streaming series The Good Fight, responded to the ever-changing news from Washington by microdosing psilocybin to the point of hallucinations (though she moved to kick her mushrooms habit in time for Sunday’s second-season finale).
Filmmaker Liz Garbus saw in the results of the 2016 election an opportunity to immerse herself in the institution the president likes to call the “failing” New York Times. Her four-episode documentary series, directed with Jenny Carchman, makes its television premiere at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on Showtime with an episode titled “The First 100 Days.” The two episodes I’ve seen — the second’s called “The Trump Bump” — show hardworking people trying to adapt to a changing media landscape while staying on top of a White House-driven news cycle that never lets up.
Yet the most meaningful reminder this Memorial Day weekend of how radically the nature of politics has changed in what seems like a short time comes in a documentary from which the current president is noticeably absent.
Premiering on Monday, the day on which we honor those who have died in the service of our country, HBO’s John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, could be seen as a dying man’s effort to have a last word, if not the last word, on his own legacy.
(I haven’t read the U.S. senator from Arizona and former POW’s new book with Mark Salter, The Restless Wave, but he reportedly pulls no punches in taking on Trump there.)
For the Republican McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before agreeing to participate in the film, For Whom the Bell Tolls might also feel a bit like attending his own funeral, as we hear from friends, admirers, and sometime opponents from both parties. (Among the interviewees are former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and former Vice President Joe Biden.)
McCain’s long history of forming alliances, and friendships, with people — including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — with whom he disagreed on many things seems remarkable now, but that’s the way things used to work in the Senate, and not so long ago.
Produced and directed by Peter Kunhardt (King in the Wilderness) with sons George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt, For Whom the Bell Tolls — named for the Ernest Hemingway novel that’s McCain’s favorite book — covers the things you’d expect, including his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But it acknowledges his flaws, including a powerful temper. And it doesn’t skip past some painful bumps in his biography, including the affair that ended his first marriage and resulted in his second, and his part in the political scandal surrounding the 1989 collapse of Lincoln Savings & Loan (in which McCain was found to have displayed “poor judgment,” an experience that motivated his push for campaign-finance reform).
Regrets, McCain has a few, including not resisting his advisers’ opposition and naming his good friend Democrat Joe Lieberman to be his running mate in 2008. But it’s left to New York Times columnist (and Radnor High School graduate) David Brooks to spell out how the choice of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped lead to a hardening political divide.
“I don’t think he could have known this at the time, but in picking Sarah Palin, he basically took a disease that was running through the Republican Party — not Palin herself, she’s a normal human being — but a disease I’ll call anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts, and put it right in the center of the party. So she was a chapter in the rise of a cheap kind of populism,” Brooks says.
That same presidential campaign, though, yielded the famous clip that can’t help but feel like a rebuke to Trump, who for years promoted the theory that McCain’s 2008 opponent had not been born in the United States (and who, according to the New York Times, continued to question Obama’s citizenship in private long after a public acknowledgment of it in 2016).
In it, McCain politely but firmly corrects a woman who tells him, “I can’t trust Obama. … He’s an Arab,” telling her, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
He goes on to tell a crowd that Obama “is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.”
Trump, who in 2015 had challenged the notion that McCain was a war hero, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured,” might see acknowledging an opponent’s decency as weakness on McCain’s part, but that’s not what it looked like to me then, and it’s not what it looks like now.
It would be a terrible thing, not just for the Republican Party, but for all of us, if the idea that reasonable people can disagree were to die with John McCain.
‘The Fourth Estate’
Times executive editor Dean Baquet, appearing on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Monday, was asked why he’d let filmmakers into his newsroom to make the documentary The Fourth Estate.
“I want people to know how hard we try,” he told Colbert. “I want people to know, to be blunt, how much integrity I believe we have, and I want people to know our imperfections. … My belief was that if people got a look inside the New York Times, their reaction would be, ‘Boy, they’re better than I thought they were.’ ”
And I suppose that might happen, though it would help if the people Baquet hopes to convince don’t already think of the Times, along with CNN, NBC News, ABC, and CBS, as the “enemy of the American people” that the president declared it to be in a February 2017 tweet.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
As both a Times subscriber and a career journalist, I can’t help but watch The Fourth Estate differently. (A mention of the construction that accompanied the consolidation of its Manhattan newsroom to free seven floors for leasing had me nodding, as we’re going through a noisy newsroom reconstruction phase ourselves.) And the Times’ successful push for digital-first publishing has become a model for my industry, in ways that have been both fascinating and far from easy.
But the thing about newsrooms is that they’re full of characters, and always have been, even before Twitter made us count them. The Fourth Estate gets that and shows the people behind the bylines, the podcasts, and the tweets. Whether it’s listening in as White House correspondent Maggie Haberman takes a call from Trump or watching the give-and-take between her and another reporter as they collaborate on deadline, you might see, yes, how hard they try, but also why — and even, amid their obvious exhaustion, how much fun they have doing it.
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. 8 p.m. Monday, HBO.
The Fourth Estate. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.