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At a Church and on Capitol Hill, The Battle for Democracy

In Washington, two events on the same day show the promise of American democracy—and the mortal danger to it.

PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer (1934-2020) poses for a portrait in his studio in Arlington, Virginia, on Thursday, May 12, 2011. Lehrer, the veteran and celebrated journalist and news anchor, died last month. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer (1934-2020) poses for a portrait in his studio in Arlington, Virginia, on Thursday, May 12, 2011. Lehrer, the veteran and celebrated journalist and news anchor, died last month. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Friday, I was in Washington, DC. No, not to witness the final throes of the Senate’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump, but to be at the memorial service for a former colleague, newsman Jim Lehrer.

Created with his friend and fellow journalist Robert MacNeil, what’s now the PBS NewsHour began life in 1975 as The Robert MacNeil Report and then very rapidly became The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

Initially, we were told the show would be Manhattan-based with Jim Lehrer making an appearance once or twice a week as its Washington correspondent.

But it was instantly obvious that the two intended the broadcast to be a partnership.  They had met at public television, then in 1973 co-anchored the groundbreaking PBS coverage of the Senate Watergate committee investigating President Richard Nixon. The two had become the closest of friends and peers.

I was present at the creation of their program, its publicist from the beginning through the first three years of production—writing press releases, coordinating photo shoots and media interviews—before I moved full-time into the production side of TV. Firsthand, I got to watch Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil work together, professionals dedicated, the two always said, to the reporting of all sides of a story—even to the point of boredom they joked—and to the freedom of the press, embracing the principle that now emblazons the daily masthead of The Washington Post, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Not that it was ever easy wresting any semblance of truth and light from politicians and government hacks. I was in the studio once when Jim was anchoring the show solo and interviewing Nelson Rockefeller, who was then Gerald Ford’s vice president after several terms as governor of New York. A half hour of Jim’s persistent questioning failed to yield anything of substance.

“How’d I do?” Rockefeller asked after it was over.

Jim was blunt: “Well, you didn’t say much of anything.”

“That’s all right," Rockefeller replied. "I didn’t come here to say much of anything.”

Friday’s memorial for Jim was held at Washington’s National United Methodist Church, the sanctuary packed with friends, family, fellow reporters and other writers (Jim also was a prolific novelist and playwright) and even some politicians.

The service was a celebration of his life with readings and reflections from his kids and grandkids, among others.  “He was my best friend,” the essayist Roger Rosenblatt said. “A hundred or more in this church will say exactly the same thing,” and historian Michael Beschloss noted that as a reporter Jim helped Americans try to live up to what Harry Truman thought was their most important role: “Citizen in a democracy.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate, after several days of opening arguments and written questions, debated and then voted down the idea that there should be any further documentation or witnesses to testify in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. The cynicism of their vote, in the face of an overwhelming majority of Americans—75 percent of them!—demanding more testimony, was an insult to the electorate, a move that The New York Times editorialized, “can only embolden the president to cheat in the 2020 election.”

According to the newspaper's editors, “The vote also brings the nation face to face with the reality that the Senate has become nothing more than an arena for the most base and brutal—and stupid—power politics. Faced with credible evidence that a president was abusing his powers, it would not muster the institutional self-respect to even investigate.”

The words and deeds of Donald Trump’s defense team over the course of this trial have justified every bad joke ever made about lawyers. They and almost every one of the GOP members of Congress have amorally defended the indefensible, hurling one increasingly mad conspiracy after another, blatantly lying to get their equally mendacious client off the hook.

Even as they spoke, more and more evidence—news that the Republicans senators were so desperately trying to cover up with their Friday vote—kept rolling in. There was the latest John Bolton allegation that Trump attorney Pat Cipollone was in the Oval Office when Trump told Bolton to help persuade Ukraine to open investigations of the Bidens and the 2016 election (yet Cipollone fraudulently has failed to recuse himself from the trial). The existence of two dozen redacted emails that, as reported by The Washington Post, “could reveal the president’s thinking about withholding military aid to Ukraine.”  The thousands in campaign contributions made by Trump‘s legal team to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and other senators voting in Trump’s trial, jury tampering and bribery at its finest.

Much was made at the church on Friday of Jim Lehrer’s fairness as a journalist; “his determination not to reveal his own biases and prejudices in his questions,” Robin MacNeil said in his eulogy.

I think that Robin and Jim from time to time disapproved of my own willingness, when it came to reporting, to swerve from the path of public neutrality. But these are desperate times and MacNeil spoke of a recent interview Jim had given CNN in which he deplored seeing the Americans values he embraced and embodied “so mocked and so flouted and so hard for American journalists to defend in the current climate of politics and journalism.”

MacNeil said he could not recall “ever hearing him angrier… He was furious at what is happening in the public estate of this country.”

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump dances across the stage in his State of the Union, strutting his inevitable acquittal, albeit with an asterisk as big as an asteroid, once again getting away with improprieties and assorted other wrongdoing that would find the rest of us clapped in irons.

At Friday’s memorial, Roger Rosenblatt remarked that Jim Lehrer possessed a rare “combination of intelligence and judgement. Judgement without intelligence is fairly useless. And intelligence without judgement is a Republican.”

It’s possible that Friday was, as David Rothkopf writes in the Daily Beast, “ the worst day for democracy in America since April 12, 1861, when South Carolina forces opened fire on Fort Sumter. Both days represented a moment when an old guard representing a dying way of life placed their own survival ahead of that of the United States and our Constitution.”

But at that church a few miles away, several hundred resisted, celebrating the life of Jim Lehrer, liberty and the freedoms expressed in that Constitution, the freedoms of the press and assembly and protest that may save us all.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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