Those of us who are used to covering the high-flying first days of America’s most-promising presidents-elect reflexively shift into wait-and-see skeptic mode when they effusively introduce their new Cabinet advisers to the world.
Every new team sounds super special, to hear their new boss tell it. Richard Nixon regaled us at length about his belief that each nominee had an “extra dimension.” (And we know how that turned out.) So of course it sounded reassuring and spot-on when President-elect Joe Biden introduced his team of very experienced national security careerists on Tuesday, in Wilmington, Delaware.
“It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” Biden began. “… Together, these public servants will restore America globally, it’s global leadership, and it’s moral leadership. … And they’ll tell me what I need to know, not what I want to know, what I need to know.”
But as each of the nominees walked to the podium to say how grateful and committed they were, there were two moments that caught us certified media skeptics by surprise. They were, in their own ways, unforgettable.
The first came when Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, was about to speak. If confirmed, she will be the first woman ever to oversee the U.S. intelligence community. As she walked to the podium, a Biden aide brought out a black box for her to stand upon. The mic was set to be just right for the 6-foot-4 John Kerry, Biden’s choice to be his climate change envoy, and the internet lists Haines as 5-foot-7. Haines, seeming even taller than Kerry as she stood on the box, said:
“Mr. President-elect, you know that I have never shied away from speaking truth to power. And that will be my charge as director of national intelligence. I’ve worked for you for a long time, and I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise…”
We remember how President Donald Trump fired his excellent director of national intelligence, the former conservative Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who had insisted upon telling Trump truths he didn’t want to hear. Haines went out of her way to support an intelligence community Trump repeatedly derided and insulted. In introducing Haines, Biden had said: “… if she gets word of a threat coming to our shores … she will not stop raising alarms until the right people take action.” And Haines made clear that’s her style. Addressing Biden, she noted that he assured her he will “value the perspective of the intelligence community and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult. And I assure you, there will be those times.”
After Haines stepped down from her black box and took her place alongside Kerry, she still seemed to stand head and shoulders taller than anyone on the stage.
And there was one other moment that was more than just extraordinary – it was quite moving. Biden’s longtime adviser, former deputy secretary of state and now nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was the first to speak. He talked at length about his family’s heritage and service, and came to his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar.
“He was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps,” Blinken said. “At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the woods in Bavaria. From his hiding place, he heard a deep rumbling sound. It was a tank. But instead of the iron cross, he saw painted on its side a five-pointed white star. He ran to the tank, the hatch opened, an African American GI looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English that his mother taught him before the war: ‘God bless America.’”
While covering Biden’s announcement event, I was indeed operating, as I noted, in my craft’s journalistic skepticism mode. No more. I was thinking about my family’s heritage, Jews from places in Poland and the western edge of Russia. And especially, I thought about my father-in-law, U.S. Army Capt. George Clifton Morgan. He had landed at Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the Bridge of Remagen, and had been among the U.S. troops that helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. And in this Thanksgiving Week, I wished I could say thanks to “Cliff” just one more time.
ABOUT THE WRITER
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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