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Jules Witcover: The challenge of the Christmas season

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — If there is one time of the year when Americans of all political stripes can put aside their differences and take a break from vicious partisan venom, it is during the current end-year religious interlude.

The airwaves are filled with Christmas songs, the stores and malls with holiday decorations, and news columns with stories of family reunions locally and around the world. It should be a collective time-out from the usual war of words that has come to dominate the calendar.

The principal casualties at the close of 2017 may be the very pillars of the American political, legal and social systems founded in Philadelphia 240 years ago, when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers 11 years later wrote and ratified the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution set up a system of self-government that balanced power among three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. Now, however, this system is facing one its most perilous tests, in the context of the leadership of a sharply and bitterly split nation.

Not only the presidency is under contention, but the other two branches are involved as well, as the legislative and judicial branches separately challenge the executive.

Another influential center, an unofficial one long labeled the “Fourth Estate,” is similarly under severe and specific fire from the executive. President Donald Trump uses his power and his unique platform to confront and undermine the American freedoms of the press and of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The challenge comes precisely as the executive himself faces formidable threats in Congress, via a special counsel investigating possible abuses of power that could lead to impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors” under the Constitution.

Meanwhile the judiciary stands by, ready to pass judgment on whether the any charges that might be brought against this president are themselves constitutional.

Much of the heat and the passion of the argument come from the inability or unwillingness of the verbal combatants on each side to eschew their accumulated animosities. Instead, they have questioned the motives of their counterparts and ascribed personal ill will in the heated back-and-forth.

But the political system itself does require the exchange, conducted on the basis of assembled facts, if justice eventually is to be served in determining a legitimate resolution of the conflict threatening our functioning democracy.

In this process, it is vital and imperative that the Fourth Estate be able, as much as possible, to perform its traditional role of providing the raw material of provable fact, based on printed or recorded evidence and sworn testimony. Its record is not perfect, but where errors have been made they are generally corrected by participants of conscience.

In contrast, this president has often sought to put a finger on the scales by misspeaking the truth or offering evidence in his own behalf made of whole cloth, to the point that mutual mistrust reigns.

Furthermore, the president has sought, often effectively, to undermine legitimate journalistic endeavor and reportorial enterprise by inventing and planting false information labeled “fake news.” The objective is to dilute and sabotage provable truth to suit his needs.

This tactic in its own way is as much an intentional attack on American democracy as are his own versions of manufactured “news.” It was in this context that much of the 2016 presidential election was bought and won by Trump. It continues to be practiced now.

There is no reason, however, why the political battle cannot be waged without the fierce partisan and vindictive below-the-belt, bare-knuckle street brawling that continued through this year’s Christmas season. Observing the usual seasonal hiatus with a modicum of glad tidings would be a welcome phenomenon. This is counsel that needs to be observed in this space as well, where that has not always been the case, but is the writer’s first 2018 resolution. If it is not honored, he no doubt will be reminded of it during the year ahead.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

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