It was set to be a night like any other in the world of television commentating, in this case at CNN. Specifically on the set of AC360, hosted by Anderson Cooper.
The topic of the moment was the news that House Intelligence Committee Chairman had removed himself from the inquiry into the Trump-Russia kerfuffle. (And I say kerfuffle as opposed to “scandal” because after months of nonsense and headlines as of this moment there is zero evidence - say again zero - that there was any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia that resulted in a Trump victory over Hillary Clinton.)
There was that night, as is always the case, a moment to celebrate the glories of the American capitalist system - aka a commercial break. During the break the panel was dismissed with instructions to return in another twenty minutes or so to discuss another topic of the day. Untethered from microphones and earpieces, six of us, my Trump-supporting self plus five others of varying political and journalistic hues retreated to the “Green Room” (as such TV waiting rooms are called in deference to an old theatrical tradition where performers gathered while off-stage) to kibitz and quaff cold water while watching the show on the always present TV monitor.
We never made it back.
Suddenly Anderson Cooper - whom we had just left - was departing from the night’s script, and it was startlingly clear why. President Trump had just ordered the launch of tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian air base in retaliation for Syrian President Assad’s use of sarin gas in an attack that killed innocent men, women and children alike. And he had done so while entertaining the President of China at a lavish Mar-a-Lago dinner at his Palm Beach estate.
Sitting there watching all this unfold, knowing that of a sudden every cable network was off and running full tilt and that whatever else we had been talking about was now gone with the wind as a topic, my mind turned to a particularly vivid memory of Ronald Reagan.
It was an early April 15th evening in 1986. The weather in Washington, as is frequently the case in spring, was beautiful. There was still plenty of daylight. The sun was setting slowly, the cherry blossoms were in bloom. On the driveway outside the South Portico of the White House the presidential motorcade was all lined up and waiting. The President was due at a nearby hotel to speak at the annual dinner hosted by his longtime friend Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt - a dinner that featured the delicacy known as “Rocky Mountain Oysters.” But the President was late, and still in the Oval Office. It was uncharacteristic of the always punctual Reagan but hey, he was the President. The staff, the accompanying press corps and Secret Service milled about enjoying the April sunshine talking about not much of anything. Finally there was a flurry of activity. The President was on the way and the rest of us all hustled into our assigned vehicles. The motorcade roared off to the hotel. Dinner was, um, interesting as I had never had this kind of “oyster” before. The President spoke his usual charming, witty remarks. Event ended we all piled back in the motorcade and returned to the White House. It wasn’t until I was finally home that I began to realize why the President had been late.
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Ten days earlier a bomb had gone off at a popular discotheque in the West German American sector of Berlin. The discotheque was a favorite of American soldiers. Three people were killed and 230 wounded, and of those two of the dead plus 79 of the wounded were U.S. soldiers. Telex messages to Libya’s East German embassy were intercepted - congratulatory messages proving conclusively that Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi was behind the attack. In fact, it was learned the explosives for the attack had entered the country in a Libyan diplomatic bag.
Ronald Reagan was not about to stand by and do nothing. On the evening of April 15th, ten days after the attack in Berlin, as his staff and the rest waited outside with his motorcade, the President had been in the Oval Office waiting himself as eighteen F-111 bombers flew over Tripoli and bombed a Libyan airbase, a naval academy and a military barracks. Another twenty-four A-6 Intruders and F/A-18 Hornets took off from US aircraft carriers to attack radar and antiaircraft locations. The attack took twelve minutes. Two American pilots were killed when their plane was shot down. There were some 60 Libyan casualties. Forewarned at the last minute by a phone call Gaddafi himself barely escaped with his life.
All of this came rushing back as I sat there in the CNN Green Room Thursday night, watching as riveted as everyone else with news of the Syrian attack -an attack with pilotless cruise missiles. It was an abrupt reminder that a good deal of what was being talked about in the news that day not just at CNN but all over the media --- rumors of White House personnel shakeups, the internal workings of the House Intelligence Committee, the flurry of sexual harassment stories surrounding Bill O’Reilly over at Fox --- paled into insignificance at the reminder of the lethal nature of what was suddenly taking place in Syria.
Now the inevitable reaction would dominate the media. Had President Trump done the right thing? Had he overreacted? What if he had done nothing? What should he do - or not do - next? What would the Russians do? These being very same Russians many in the mainstream media had been insisting had “colluded” with Trump to win the 2016 election in the first place.
The CNN screen was filling almost instantly with retired generals and admirals. General James “Spider” Marks had appeared in the Green Room and just as quickly been whisked into the nearby studio with Anderson, where he now stood next to a map of Syria and calmly explained the geography and military strategy involved.
The rest of us never made it back on the air that night, and understandably so. There will be plenty of time to talk over the politics of the attack and what the next step is or should and should not be. But for one unexpected moment there was a sobering reminder - as if war-weary Americans needed one - of just how dangerous the outside world can be. And a reminder as well that the young men and women who launched those missiles lighting up the Middle Eastern skies were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers, brothers and sisters.
In some ways as I thought of that long-ago April night in 1986, waiting for a waiting president who had launched his own military response to answer the bloody deeds of yet another Middle Eastern tyrant, a response that had brought the deaths of two American sons, one could only think of that old expression that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except, of course, while turmoil still reigns in the Middle East, things haven’t stayed the same in the media world. In 1986, CNN was a mere six years old - and it was alone in the world of cable news. Now the world is awash in cable news and totally immersed in what is quaintly called social media.
Whatever else happens as the future moves on one thing is certain. Thursday night served as a serious reminder that a good bit of what the media focuses on is nowhere near as consequential as the life-and-death consequences of war.