By: Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former CNN anchor, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief. The views expressed are his own.
It was an earthquake. But Americans chose. After a gut-wrenching campaign, dominated by questions about character and temperament, Donald Trump will be America’s 45th president.
Now comes the hard part: governing, and moving past the political bludgeoning we’ve been through. The campaign was an ugly, divisive, and at times, demeaning experience for a great nation.
As we look in the mirror, we need to be honest and acknowledge that one of the greatest failures, committed by voters and media alike, was the failure to ask the right questions insistently or hard enough — serious questions about the choices and trade-offs we confront and how the realities of a complex world influence our national life.
As noted Republican consultant Frank Luntz observed during the campaign, the wrong question drove the debate. Instead of asking about the candidates’ plans and policies, Luntz says, it came down to, “What would you rather see, Donald Trump’s taxes, or Hillary Clinton’s emails?”
From climate change to race, law enforcement to income inequality, terrorism to immigration, we must ask how we will build consensus and find answers now. How will we change the national mood and restore civility? How will we diagnose what’s wrong and find a treatment we can agree upon and tolerate? How will we move forward to accomplish great things?
Asking the right questions now — and taking time to think before we answer and listen before we decide — can redirect the national conversation to the constructive terrain we so desperately need. Questions focus our attention. They direct us toward answers. They frame the conversation and challenge us to respond to a higher calling.
John Kennedy launched his presidency with a speech that, amid the daunting challenges of the time — from the Cold War and its nuclear demons to poverty and inequality — implored all who listened to pose a fundamental question. It resonates still.
“And so, my fellow Americans,” he declared, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan, in his inaugural speech, posed a double-barreled question of his own. It, too, challenged us, and it holds us accountable to this day.
“How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they’re sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”
“Can we solve the problems confronting us?” Reagan asked. “Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic ‘yes.’ ”
Reagan, like Kennedy, believed in the power of the big question.
Each man reflected his own moment in time and his own unique perspective. Each held beliefs that would provoke fierce debate and disagreement. Each knew the struggles were eternal. But their questions helped the nation organize, prioritize and set its sights. They helped us think big.
2017 should be the year of questions. We must ask not how the inevitable debates will divide us but how they can lead to some form of consensus. We must ask what kind of nation we want to be, what role we should play in the world, and what each of us can do to make progress possible. We should focus on the world that matters, not just the world that makes noise or gets ratings.
The media should lead the way in posing these questions. It will be tempting to dwell on the open wounds and lingering antagonisms. But it is time to look ahead and to ask about the issues that matter and the choices we confront. Immigration. Global warming. Race. Crime. Health care. Debt. North Korea. Jobs. Ask insistently about the dimension of the problem, the range of options, the costs and consequences and the real objectives.
What will Donald Trump’s big question be? Will he ask people to build walls, or will he ask for bridges?
If we are to thrive as a free, open, informed and innovative country, we must ask in order to learn, listen in order to understand and empathize. We must seek answers, not just advantage.
Americans move on. The reviewing stand for the inaugural parade is under construction. When the procession marches by, we should ask what have we learned and where are we going?