Dean of Journalists in Washington: "I've never seen anything like it"

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Jean-François Bélanger (access the author's page)

Elizabeth Drew has covered every presidential election since Richard Nixon's 1968 election. She takes a concerned look at the US presidential election and the future of the country.

A career spanning more than half a century that makes her the most experienced political journalist in Washington. At 84, she remains very active. She has published a reference book on Richard Nixon and continues to write for numerous publications. She called me at 10:30 p.m. to answer my questions after her long day at work.

You have certainly covered more presidential elections than any other journalist still working. How does it stand out?

It's totally different from anything I've known before. I've never seen anything like it. This is the first time we have found ourselves in an election wondering how the incumbent president is going to try to cheat and steal the election in order to be reelected.

It's extraordinary! We've never experienced this before. We had normal elections. He is an unpopular president; a corrupt administration … the most corrupt in history. And we wonder how much he is going to cheat. On top of all of that, we have a pandemic that is totally out of control, an economy in terrible shape. We've never seen anything like it.

So when you hear people say it's the choice of a lifetime, it really is. And I believe that is the reason why so many people vote in advance. Because the stakes are so decisive. I am convinced that the majority feel that Donald Trump is a dangerous man and that he must go.

US President Donald Trump hugging the US flag before delivering his speech at CPAC.

US President Donald Trump hugging the US flag before delivering a speech.

Photo: Reuters / Yuri Gripas

You covered Watergate and wrote a book on Richard Nixon. He was the subject of impeachment proceedings like Donald Trump. How do the two situations compare?

I have always viewed Watergate as a constitutional crisis. Not a story of policemen and thieves. Crimes were committed under the aegis of Richard Nixon, but that had nothing to do with (the recent situation). Nixon was a product of the political system. He was elected to Congress, Senator and then Vice-President for eight years before becoming President. He was still a measured man.

Even though some pretty scary things had been done, he understood that there were limits. It is not known if Donald Trump understands that there are limits. On the other hand, the Republican Party is totally different today. Before, and this was the case between 1968 and 1972, there was a will of the parties to work together; a search for consensus. Richard Nixon was forced to resign for this reason.

Today, the Republican Party is very different. Much more to the right. The whole system is much more partisan. It would no longer be possible to do today what was done then. The policy has totally changed.

Richard Nixon with family members during his resignation speech, August 9, 1974

Richard Nixon with family members during his resignation speech, August 9, 1974

Photo: Getty Images / Keystone

How did we get here?

Very good question. Donald Trump has a lot of power (within the Republican Party) because of his control over donors and the grassroots, activists. Little by little, the moderates were thus driven out. It started before Trump. Since Nixon in fact. So, little by little, the moderates are driven out of the party. They lose the primaries because of donors and grassroots activists.

Many are expressing concerns about the health of democracy in the United States in 2020. Are you concerned?

I think it depends on whether Trump gets reelected or not. It is not just a partisan issue. This is because, like it or not, Trump has little respect for the constitutional system or for standards. A lot of things are not directly in the Constitution. They are implied. There is a way to govern and there are things that cannot be done.

Look who wrote the Constitution. They were aristocrats. Franklin was an aristocrat. He was very smart. And so the authors expected a certain behavior, a certain level of decency. They did not see the current situation coming. Trump is not holding back. And there is no guardrail, no one around him to control him because those who oppose him are kicked out.

The Constitution is fragile in this regard. It depends on the willingness of the people in government to exercise restraint and to understand, to accept that there are limits. And Donald Trump did not. Many people worry about the consequences for democracy if he is re-elected.

Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore. In the background, former Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, whose faces are carved in granite.

Donald Trump was visiting Mount Rushmore on July 3 to deliver a speech.

Photo: Getty Images / SAUL LOEB

To end on a positive note. Of all the presidents you've known, which one stands out for the better? Which one do you admire the most?

Different presidents have distinguished themselves for different reasons. Kennedy, for example, restored politics to its nobility. And he appealed to our idealistic nature. I don't think he was the greatest president. But I think he did something terribly important in politics: he appealed to our idealistic side.

Johnson made huge strides in civil rights and fairness. He helped the poor. But he also had flaws. I'm trying to think of a Republican too… I would say George H.W Bush was a good president. Not his son.

Obama was wonderful. Was he perfect? No! But he really took government seriously, without taking himself too seriously.

I was not there for Lincoln, but Lincoln was obviously an extraordinary figure. If I had to choose which president I would like to have a meal with, I would say Lincoln. I think it would have been very interesting.

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