Sixty years ago the radical journalist I.F. Stone attended John F. Kennedy’s first press conference. Immune—or so he thought—to the new president’s charm, Stone had spent the 1960 election finding ample cause for despair. Kennedy, he wrote, was “hopeless” on Cuba, and in their debate performances, when it came to civil liberties “Nixon emerged more liberal.” Yet given Nixon’s own role as an enthusiastic exponent of McCarthyism, “how could one possibly vote for him?” Stone remained unimpressed by Kennedy’s inaugural. The young president’s soaring call to service left him cold, while JFK’s readiness to “pay any price” sounded like a blank check for the Pentagon. After that press conference, though, Stone recognized an unfamiliar sensation: optimism—as if, he wrote, “the Prophet Jeremiah were caught cheering.”
I know the feeling. The Nation has been hostile to Biden since November 2019; we endorsed Bernie Sanders and argued that “Biden’s not the one” well into the primary season. Even after Biden clinched the nomination, we curbed our enthusiasm, preferring to make the case that progressives should “fire Donald Trump” rather than arguing that the former vice president was likely to deliver anything worth cheering. But while the jury on the president’s policies is likely to remain out for some time, his appointments, and his professed priorities, have been far better than many on the left expected. His ringing endorsement of the right to organize, with its recognition that “unions built the middle class” puts the White House more squarely on the side of workers than any administration since the New Deal. No one would confuse Biden for the “young man of energy, zest and ability” who dazzled I.F. Stone, but it was impossible not to be impressed watching the president outclass his feckless and mostly flailing inquisitors last week.
After four years of waking up every morning wondering “What fresh hell is this?,” there is a temptation to cheer what the president has described many times as a return to normal (if not normalcy). But there are good reasons for those of us in the press to resist that temptation. While the former president may be gone from the scene, the ideology he represents is still firmly ascendant over both the Republican Party and large segments of the population. Sadly for the many outlets that went all Trump, all the time, treating the man himself as the problem and his supporters as a bunch of incorrigible racists whose grievances were beneath notice—and are now seeing their Trump bumps in ratings and circulation rapidly deflate—weaning an audience from a diet of daily outrage can be perilous.
It might be the case that the decline in circulation and traffic across a wide spectrum of outlets recently described by Dan Kennedy is just the sign of a mass exhalation. Perhaps after taking a deep breath—and a much-needed break from doom scrolling—readers will return, refreshed, and ready to reengage. I certainly hope so. And not just because I believe a vibrant and popular press is good for all journalists—and for democracy.
One way to encourage that return might be to acknowledge that “normalcy” hasn’t been normal, or sustainable, for a very long time. During his campaign, President Biden often implied that replacing Donald Trump was not just a necessary but also a sufficient condition for restoring the lost decency of American life. But the illusion of an idealized past—whether in big-finned American Graffiti fantasies of the Eisenhower era (when Black demands for justice led structural racism to show its teeth) or the Camelot mystique of Kennedy’s America (which led straight to the jungles of Vietnam)—is just that, an illusion.
The writer and activist Heather McGee notes that Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (the inspiration for both the Green New Deal and Biden’s economic rescue package) built public swimming pools all across America, often open only to whites. When Blacks demanded access, communities preferred draining the pools to desegregating them. That was the old “normal,” along with state and national legislatures in hock to oil companies and other corporate interests, a health system that rations medical care on the basis of ability to pay, educational opportunity restricted by ZIP code (and hence, in a racially and socially segregated America, by race and class), and an approach to trade and investment that gave workers and communities no stake in the wealth they’d created, and no say when corporations took jobs and profits overseas.
Instead of hankering after comforting illusions, perhaps the press will pivot to its traditional role of holding power to account, telling readers and viewers the truth about the times we live in, however disconcerting. If we build it, will they come? There’s only one way to find out.