Editor’s note: Outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake delivered the following address at the 2018 Congressional Radio and Television Correspondents’ (RTCA) dinner.
Near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident ...” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth.
The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America. Without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, our democracy will not last.
Over the past few years we have seen the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than at any time in our history. The term “alternative facts” has been enshrined into the American lexicon. We’ve seen an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.
I would say that the truth has been, well, “accosted,” but my kids would call that a “dad joke.” It seems you all agree with my kids.
It is said that if you serve long enough in Washington, you’ll see just about everything. I never thought I would hear the president of the United States refer to our free press as the “enemy of the people,” a phrase that has such an ignoble pedigree.
The president has it precisely backward. Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy.
The careless use of the term “fake news” is not just injurious to the body politic, it puts journalists in real danger. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, frequently encounter members of the U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth.
To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice. It also lends language to dictators, language used to stifle legitimate dissent and to crack down on journalists in their own countries.
The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark. It is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler.
That is why respect for freedom of the press has always been, and must always be, one of this country’s most important exports.
And in our country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we now see that should be cause for profound alarm. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
In America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful — in fact, we question the powerful most ardently — to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no person, not even the president, will ever have dominion over objective reality.
Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press, is that the press usually corrects itself when it makes a mistake. We politicians usually don’t.
Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism or to take away credentials is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job as politicians to take it.
The question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by this parsing of truth.
If we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost. That is why the work that you in this room do has never been more important than it is today.
Now, if I can address those beyond this room for a moment. To my colleagues whom you will be covering in the next Congress. I’m sure they’re watching on CSPAN.
The historian Jon Meacham, in his book, “The Soul of America,” reassures that history shows us that “we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness, and strife.” The good news, he says, “is that we have come through such darkness before.”
A culminating event such as the election of our current president scrambles normal binary notions of politics, and we are all disoriented at this dealignment. We find that many of the day’s biggest issues simply don’t break down neatly to familiar ideas of left v. right, but rather more along these lines:
--Do you believe in democracy, or not?
--Are you faithful to your country, or to your party?
--Are you loyal to the law and the Constitution, or to a man?
--Do you reflexively ascribe the worst motives to your opponents, but somehow deny, excuse, or endorse every repulsive thing your compatriot says, does, or tweets?
These questions have sent some of us wandering into the political wilderness. Fortunately, I’m no stranger to the wilderness.
In fact, during one congressional recess I spent a week alone, voluntarily marooned, on a tiny island called Jabonwod, a remote spit of sand and coconut trees in the central Pacific, about 7,000 miles from Washington.
Determined to test my survival skills, I brought no food or water, relying solely on what I could catch or collect. That, it turned out, was the easier part. More difficult was dealing with the stultifying loneliness that set in on the first night and never left me.
Now, I would not recommend such drastic measures for my colleagues to measure their independence, but I hope that should they be asked to go along with policies they cannot abide, or condone behavior that should never be condoned, that they will eschew the comfort and security of the tribe and set out into the wilderness rather than compromise their conscience.
I would urge them to challenge partisan assumptions, regularly. Recognize the good in political opponents. Apologize every now and then. Admit to mistakes. Forgive, and ask for forgiveness. Listen more. Speak up more.
I would tell my colleagues, if you find yourself in a herd, crane your neck, look back there and check out your brand, ask yourself if it really suits you. From personal experience, I can say that it’s never too late to leave the herd.
When you peel off from the herd, your equilibrium returns. Food tastes better. You sleep well. Your mind is your own again. You cease being captive to some bad impulses and even worse ideas.
It can strain relationships, to be sure, and leave you eating alone in the Senate dining room. But that’s OK. To revise and extend a remark the president himself may recognize: I like people whose minds weren’t captured. How I miss John McCain.
Nearly a century and a half ago, Brigham Young sent my great-great-grandfather, William Jordan Flake, from Utah to settle in northern Arizona. He started a community, and after the arrival of a man named Erastus Snow, the town was named Snowflake, for the two of them.
Snowflake was still very much the Wild West. A few years after its founding, William Jordan’s son, James Madison Flake, my great-grandfather, was deputized along with his brother, Charles, to disarm an outlaw. They did so, but not before the outlaw killed Charles and wounded my great-grandfather, James Madison.
In the ensuing years, James Madison Flake went on to honor his wife’s memory by traveling around Arizona and as far away as Colorado to promote the cause of women’s suffrage.
I have to think that this week, more than a century later, James Madison Flake would be as proud as his great-grandson that Arizona has elected its first female senator.