Welcome back to Political Theater, Roll Call’s newsletter and podcast on the spectacle of politics and how it fits, or doesn’t, into the nation’s culture. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
The ‘Final’ Word?
The civil war in Syria. Boko Haram. Russia. Climate change. American foreign policy operates in a high-stakes environment in a very public glare. And in 2016, in the midst of a contentious election year, President Barack Obama oversaw a team of players trying to solidify a legacy in his last year in office. Documentary filmmaker Greg Barker went along for the ride, from the cramped quarters of the West Wing to an emotional speech at Hiroshima, Japan for his new film, “The Final Year.”
“We’re used to seeing these people as talking heads,” Barker says in the latest Political Theater podcast, referring to Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “That’s not what works in a movie,” he adds, saying he wanted to depict the “emotional space” of the “ordinary people” engaged in foreign policy.
“What I came to realize over the course of the year is, I did a lot of press briefings that I’d prepare a lot for, and they seemed very important,” Rhodes says. “But you start to realize, particularly in the eighth year, how ephemeral that is. ... I started to realize, wait a second, this film is actually going to be an object, that people can look at a year from now, five years from now. Suddenly it started to feel more important to me,” he explains in discussing his approach to the documentary.
Listen to the full podcast:
Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have made careers out of playing up their maverick images. Wednesday was no exception, at least for those who want members of the GOP to fall into line behind its standard-bearer, President Donald Trump.
First came McCain’s op-ed salvo in the Washington Post with the blaring headline: “Mr. President, stop attacking the press,” which argued that when Trump attacks journalists in the United States, he gives comfort to dictators around the world.
Then Flake took to the Senate floor to decry Trump’s attacks on the press as damaging to the institutions that serve the country. “We are a mature democracy — it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring — or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth,” Flake said. “For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.”
The retirement of Flake in Arizona has given Democrats hope they can flip his seat and set themselves up for a potential take-over of the Senate if they can find another seat to pick up, like that of GOP Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. So is a change in the Senate majority in the offing?
Roll Call political analyst Stu Rothenberg writes that before Democrats break out the champagne, they need to do more than just turn two: They have to also defend a bunch of seats held by Democrats who are in mighty tough races.
“Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016,” he writes.
Words Matter, Apparently
We might be seeing some of the fallout of the widely reported “Shithole” summit at the White House last week, when Trump described Haiti, El Salvador and African countries with that scatological epithet.
According to the latest Economist/YouGov public opinion survey, four out of five Americans said they believe the president “reacts and speaks without thinking very much” and 44 percent think Trump is a racist.
The comments did provide Washington and the world with some unintentional comedic relief, though, Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro writes. Homeland Security Secretary Krisjen Nielsen, grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week about Trump’s word choice, testified that she wasn’t sure whether Norway was a predominantly white country.