The scene on Tuesday’s TV screen seemed frighteningly familiar: A TV journalist was trying to do his job of just talking into a microphone at President Donald Trump’s rally in Tampa, Fla. Suddenly, the crowd began targeting CNN’sJim Acosta menacingly, as they chanted:
“CNN SUCKS! CNN SUCKS!”
It was what we knew but didn’t see that made the scene so frightening. We know that today a locked-and-loaded follower —— moved to act by the inciting anti-media taunts of the president —— make journalists a target for the ultimate act of violence: assassination. As I watched, I know just what CNN’s correspondent was experiencing, because I’ve also been at the vortex of those hate-filled tornados that can touch down when political demagogues manipulate crowds.
I wound up at the center of it while covering my first presidential campaign, just a few years ago: In 1968. That was America’s worst year since the Civil War. I covered two political assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy), and we all knew the next one could be as close as our next assignment. Or maybe this one.
I covered the presidential campaigns of Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon and independent Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, a populist and segregationist, who would himself be gravely wounded four years later by a would-be assassin.
Unlike the unrepentant Trump, Wallace knew when he needed to turn off his inflammatory rhetoric.
One night in Baltimore, Wallace was doing his usual populist thing, which included bashing the news media for being biased against “rednecks” and working folks. Suddenly his crowd began shouting angrily at the reporters. Wallace, ever alert, told his crowd he sure didn’t mean all the news folks travelin’ with him — we’re all OK. He just meant those big decision-makers back in their big-city news offices.
Then there was Cleveland: When police removed anti-war protesters from Wallace’s auditorium rally, I was the only reporter who went outside to check on their fate. After climbing into our press convertible parked curbside, I saw one policeman club the head of a demonstrator he felt wasn’t walking fast enough. When several others clubbed the fallen youth, a young woman ran up, shouting “stop!”—— and the first cop clubbed her too. Just then Wallace’s car drove out of the auditorium garage; our driver sped us to the airport with me being the only reporter in this mini-motorcade.
At the airport tarmac, I did my job as the media’s pool reporter. As Wallace shook each escorting cop’s hand, I told him what I’d witnessed and asked for his comment. He replied the police are usually “too lenient,” and then he climbed up his plane’s stairway to fly to Alabama for the weekend. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s cops encircled me One demanded my identification. I got out my wallet and another cop slapped it to the ground, cards scattering. Another took my notebook. A fourth cop sucker-punched me from behind.
Suddenly, the assault stopped. Wallace saw it all and had come down the steps. “Hey, Marty, I just wanted to say I enjoyed having you travel with me this week. You’re always fair. You’ll be there again on Monday, right?”
Well yes, I said ——if I survive Cleveland. He smiled, winked and climbed back up his plane’s steps. The cops started apologizing, picking up my wallet and cards. “Sorry, sir. … We didn’t know. … Didn’t understand.”
I cannot imagine Trump having the decency to do that. One year ago, I wrote a column warning that Trump’s demonizing of journalists will someday incite the most warped of his followers seek to assassinate one or more journalists. Since then, his incendiary rhetoric has only increased. When the New York Times publisher warned Trump about it, the president just increased his anti-media bashing.
But we all know the danger of America’s slide into a politics of hate. We all remember the horrific day that a deranged leftist activist, surely incited by the left’s contempt for conservatives, shot up a Republican congressional baseball practice.
As House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., so severely wounded that day and now thankfully recovered, recently observed on Fox News: “I’ve seen personally how … inciteful language can led to something very dangerous.” Scalise has never directed his sentiments at his party’s ultimate leader. But here’s hoping he does —— pronto!
Scalise’s new life-saving challenge must be to find the strength to save others by directing his plea at the one leader who has yet to heed Scalise’s wise, but too gentle, warning.
America urgently needs a New Civility.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected].