I have been a member of the board of trustees of the world’s No. 1 think tank, The Brookings Institution in Washington, for the better part of two decades. In all of that time, I can say without equivocation that my involvement at Brookings has been the most interesting and most rewarding thing I do outside of Las Vegas.
This past week was no different, unless you consider the otherworldliness status of our meetings and other matters that were occurring in our nation’s capital at the same time.
To say that the mood in Washington is just strange and unlike it has been during the administrations of the last three presidents — Democrat and Republican — would be a significant understatement. Life inside the Beltway is no different in that regard than it is in cities across the country. Confusion, bewilderment, disbelief and fear seem to grip the people at the seat of power in ways I have never seen.
In some small way you could say that President Donald Trump has achieved his goal and made good on his promise to change Washington forever. In a much larger sense, you could understand the sentiment expressed in what most people are saying on a daily basis, which is summed up in three letters found often on Twitter. (This might take a moment to figure out).
The contrasts between what occurred last week in meetings at Brookings and in a U.S. Senate hearing room a few blocks away couldn’t be more pronounced.
The Brookings family was preparing to say thank you to its long-serving president, Strobe Talbott, a man of unquestioned integrity.
Strobe became president of the institution 15 years ago, and through his incredible leadership he has made the Brookings Institution the adult in the room when it comes to international think tanks. And now he is stepping down to pursue his own academic interests, leaving the Brookings Board a monumental task trying to find a successor.
Thursday night, the Brookings family gathered together to say thank you to Strobe.
Public service has been Strobe’s calling throughout his life. His successes — whether bringing the former Soviet Union along toward a friendly relationship with the United States when there was some doubt whether the emerging Russia would implode, whether it was developing and sharing an understanding of India at a time when U.S. interests required it, or whether it was during the last 15 years when leading Brookings toward a more impactful relationship with U.S. and world policymakers — caused a few hundred people to gather at the beautiful Organization of American States building across the street from the White House to show respect and give thanks for a life well-contributed to the public good.
We were joined by Strobe’s former boss and former Oxford University roommate, President Bill Clinton, and his other former boss and the first female secretary of state of the United States, Madeleine Albright. The two described a life well-lived in the service to his fellow Americans in matters of great substance and incredible impact. (By the way, it was through Strobe’s incredible leadership and vision that Brookings Mountain West at UNLV was created, making life for all Nevadans significantly better in the bargain.)
The Brookings board meetings included off-the-record discussions with three members of the President Trump’s team. They were, for the most part, candid, forthright and somewhat revealing given the nature of this administration, which is to hold things close to the vest. And why not? The leakers will make sure the public gets to know what it needs to know anyway.
National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are two pros. Most Americans can take some comfort that our homeland and our homes will be the top priority of these two American military men. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin also sounds like a man capable of making sound decisions in matters financial and economic.
While each man was careful not to say too much, what came through loud and clear was their respect for Brookings, its scholars and the people who run this institution, which has been a critical part of American foreign and domestic policy for over 100 years.
What was also clear was that our speakers as well as our trustees and scholars, while interested in the matters at hand, were perfectly fine keeping an eye and ear out for the goings on just a few blocks away in a U.S. Senate hearing room. Like everyone else in America, we were all interested in what former FBI Director James Comey had to say.
What he said, what the president’s response was and the import of it all will be discussed at great length in weeks and months to come. What struck me about the whole thing, though, was the difference between what took place in those few blocks between where the Brookings events took place and the U.S. Capitol — the majesty of public service on display at Brookings and the misery of public recrimination in the Senate hearing room.
Besides giving all-too-willing members of the administration an open mind and open microphone where it often matters inside the Beltway, just down the street the president of the United States was branded a liar for the whole world to see and hear. And without a second thought, our president retorted by branding the former head of the FBI a liar too.
I am not a particularly young person anymore, which means I can remember Watergate, the Cuban missile crisis, the stare down of the Soviet Union that led to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and a response to the worst terror attack ever on the United States. Good or bad, sound policy or not, these were times in which American leadership was tested and Americans came through.
But not once do I remember our FBI director swearing under oath that the president of the United States was a liar. Whether he is worse will be a determination made by various congressional hearings and a special counsel.
It all happened in one day and mostly in one building. It was a good week for some and a really bad day for the rest of us.
Brian Greenspun is editor, publisher and owner of the Sun.