For those who suffer from the delusion that Donald Trump is unusual among Republicans in his disregard for the truth, The New York Times did a public service to all Americans Sunday morning.
As part of its Sunday Review, it published a commentary on the Obama administration by a Republican. Journalistically and historically, that is important and valuable, both for seeing the other side and for maintaining what was supposed to be a tradition: the original op-ed editor for The Times, Harrison Salisbury, said he put a premium on including commentaries that were truly “op,” as in, opposite of what Times editorials and columnists usually said. It turned out to be valuable journalistically and historically for different reasons.
The author was Eric Cantor, a former representative from Virginia who was House whip at the time President Obama took office. After the Democratic electoral bloodbath of 2010, he moved up to majority leader and seemed on track to become speaker when he managed to lose the Republican primary in 2014 to Dave Brat, a Tea Party candidate. Within two months, Cantor had resigned as majority leader and then as a congressman, and managed to become a director and executive for an investment bank.
Cantor recalled the hope he saw at the 2009 inauguration, his appreciation for Obama reaching out to Republicans for their ideas, and his disappointment when the president and his team in the White House and Congress then refused to go along with anything they suggested.
Cantor was so willing to be cooperative that he doesn’t mention the dinner he attended that inauguration night with a group of 15 other Republicans, including future Speaker Paul Ryan; Cantor’s eventual successor as House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy; former Speaker Newt Gingrich; pollster Frank Luntz, who spent the 2016 election as a CBS News contributor; current Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker; and then-Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has publicly talked about his “friendship” with the president and his admiration for him.
According to Robert Draper’s account of the dinner in his book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the US House of Representatives, they agreed to attack his appointees and “show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies,” with House Republicans unanimously agreeing to oppose his stimulus package just over a week later.
In other words, what Cantor wrote was what the media might call an “untruth.” By the time he met with Obama about the stimulus, he and his fellow Republicans had held their meeting, agreed to oppose that measure, and couldn’t have cared less about what ideas of theirs the president accepted.
As we hardly need to be reminded, throughout the 2016 campaign, her opponents portrayed Hillary Clinton as a liar, and the media went along, even as some of them pointed out Trump’s lies. Clinton’s defenders obviously disagreed, but those who sought balance would agree that anything she said that could be called a lie paled into insignificance when compared with Trump. As Paul Krugman correctly pointed out, “You have to go back to Al Gore in 2000 to find a politician who faced as much jeering from the news media, over everything from claims of dishonesty (which usually turn out to be based on nothing) to matters of personal style.” He even titled one column, “Hillary Clinton Gets Gored.”
But Republican dishonesty goes back a long way, and the media never went into this example of it—Cantor’s claims about cooperation—until Draper’s book came out in 2012. Indeed, even after it, reporters and commentators have continued to criticize Obama for his failure to reach out to the opposition, especially Maureen Dowd in her columns in … The New York Times, including one that prompted his White House Correspondents Association Dinner speech in which he said, “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” In fact, while he hadn’t tippled with McConnell, he had tried, and failed, to get anywhere in reaching out to congressional Republicans.
Trump certainly poses problems as a president that no opposition ever has encountered before. But one of the problems that Democrats will face is the media’s willingness to take Republican lies at face value. If Eric Cantor’s “opinion” article awakens everyone involved, The Times’s failure to annotate it with the truth may yet prove beneficial.