The headline in The Atlantic read this way: "Is Something Neurologically Wrong With Donald Trump?"
The question to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was put this way: “What is the president’s reaction of the suggestions in this book that he is mentally unfit?” The book in question, of course, is Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury.
Well. It seems that Wolff himself had another take altogether on just who was having mental health problems. Back in February of 2017, long before his book was released, Wolff appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources with host Brian Stelter. And over there at the CNN website is this headline from Wolff’s appearance:
Michael Wolff says media is 'having a nervous breakdown' over Trump
You read that right. Wolff was saying that it was the media — not Trump — that was struggling with a problem of mental instability. Said the CNN write-up of the Wolff interview:
The Hollywood Reporter columnist and Newsweek writer told CNN's Brian Stelter on Reliable Sources Sunday that the press goes into a ‘fit of apoplexy’ after every move from the White House -- an overreaction he said damages the media's credibility.
‘As we try to go after his credibility, our credibility becomes equally a problem,’ Wolff said. ‘I think individual journalists are, in many cases, having a nervous breakdown.’”
I have not yet read Wolff’s new book — a book that has been thoroughly trashed by the Trump White House. But one has to say that his comments to Stelter from a year ago have zeroed in on what is a real problem for the media. As Wolff noted, Trump keeps making fools of the media. The reaction is that the media overreacts — and overreacts and overreacts. Wolff specifically cited The New Yorker’s David Remnick for “going off in fits of bloviation” since the election in a fashion “never seen in The New Yorker before.” Remnick had “no facts”, knew no one in the new administration and had done no reporting “and yet the world is coming to an end.” It was noted that Remnick had said the Trump presidency was an “emergency” - to which Wolff asked: “What is the emergency” - other than that Trump has made Remnick feel “personally offended and upset and worried?” For good measure Wolff said the front page of The New York Times “makes it look like it’s 1938 in Germany everyday.” Ouch.
Meanwhile, over in The Atlantic, was this collection of jewels:
“President Donald Trump’s decision to brag in a tweet about the size of his “nuclear button” compared with North Korea’s was widely condemned as bellicose and reckless. The comments are also part of a larger pattern of odd and often alarming behavior for a person in the nation’s highest office.
Trump’s grandiosity and impulsivity has made him a constant subject of speculation among those concerned with his mental health. But after more than a year of talking to doctors and researchers about whether and how the cognitive sciences could offer a lens to explain Trump’s behavior, I’ve come to believe there should be a role for professional evaluation beyond speculating from afar.”
Got that? The President’s comments about the size of the American nuclear arsenal versus those of North Korea — yes, phrased as they were in the language of the common man, a habit of speech that has been a political asset for Trump — were designed to say one thing, and one thing only. To wit: If North Korea ever used one of its nukes against the United States or its allies the police state would be blown off the face of the earth by the overwhelming might of the American nuclear arsenal.
The latter thought, of course, is hardly original to President Trump. Here is this from President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he lectured the Soviet Union as follows:
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. . . .”
Yes, JFK had a flair for the King’s English. But make no mistake: Kennedy’s warning to the Soviets was exactly the same as Trump’s to the North Koreans. That warning was simple. “If you launch a nuclear missile at my country I will use the full might of the American nuclear arsenal and eradicate your country. Got it?”
No one in the media of the day started writing pieces that suggested John F. Kennedy was mentally ill. And there’s a reason. Because the media of the day loved John F. Kennedy. He could do no wrong - including threatening all out nuclear war. And for the record, it was exactly Kennedy’s “get tough” response to the Soviet installation of nukes in Cuba that brought an end to the crisis.
Over at Conservative Review Rob Eno noted this pattern of questioning Trump’s mental stability showed up in the Reagan era - and he is right. Eno writes:
“Echoes of Reagan … On his radio program last night, LevinTV host Mark Levin compared the Trump tweet about the nuclear button to President Reagan’s open-mic wisecrack about the Soviet Union during the taping of a radio broadcast. Reagan said, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Levin explained how the two statements were meant to warn the nation’s adversaries.
Contemporary reaction to Reagan … In 1984, New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith wrote a supposed straight news story titled, “Reagan’s Gaffe.” When reading this article, one gets a feeling of déjà vu. The attacks against Reagan are almost word for word the exact sentiments being launched at Trump. If you want to see how the media has not really changed in how they go after a Republican president, this piece is well worth a read. The only thing different about today is that Twitter amplifies more quickly the voices of those discontented with the president and makes it harder for journalists to keep their actual biases to themselves.”
Bingo. And what did Reagan have in common with today’s President Trump? You guessed it. The media of Reagan’s day couldn’t stand Reagan. There was story after story after story that he was not very bright (“an amiable dunce” cackled Democratic fixer Clark Clifford to the delight of journalists), was out of touch and just plain ignorant. Then Time correspondent Strobe Talbot wrote an entire book in 1984 about American relations with the Soviet Union. Reagan was portrayed as a blithering idiot who was, dangerously, in charge of America’s nukes when he didn’t even understand what terms like “throw-weight” meant. (It means the weight of a missile’s pay load.) So pervasive were stories that Reagan was some kind of doddering old fool that when former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker arrived to become the new White House Chief of Staff in 1987 he went out of his way to have his own new staffers observe Reagan close up to verify the stories. They watched the President up close — and Baker quickly realized the stories were all bunk.
Which is to say, we have been here before and done that. The Atlantic’s story and similar stories elsewhere are nothing but an indication of Wolff’s point to Brian Stelter from a year ago. The folks with the mental health problem are, as Wolff made clear, the journalists themselves. To repeat, Wolff said: “I think individual journalists are, in many cases, having a nervous breakdown.”
As the media goes about celebrating Wolff’s new book on what goes on inside the Trump White House, perhaps they might take a moment to reflect on what he says about them.
Don’t wait up looking for those stories.