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Starved for some good news? Listen to the new Secretary of State
Dick Polman

It’s so lamentably easy to stew with the ongoing gush of bad news. 

Punxsutawney Phil has fled to his hidey hole after glimpsing six more weeks of vaccine chaos. The insurrectionist in exile has hired two new lawyers - one of whom refused to prosecute Bill Cosby, the other was slated to defend Jeffrey Epstein. “Moderate” Senate Republicans, who suddenly care about fiscal conservatism again, want to give suffering Americans one-third of the COVID relief money proposed by President Biden. House Republicans seem to be fine with a member who thinks that Jewish space lasers cause wildfires and that a plane never hit the Pentagon on 9/11. All this and more, the usual detritus of our era. But believe it or not, I’ve found some good news! 

Lest we forget, the electorate laid waste to the autocratic MAGA grifters and replaced them with credentialed people who actually embrace enduring American values. The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is Exhibit A. I’m still marveling at what he told the press corps on his very first day:

“President Biden said that he wants truth and transparency back in the White House briefing room, that fully applies in this room as well...I know we’re not always going to see eye to eye, that’s not the point of the enterprise. Sometimes we’ll be frustrating to you. I imagine there are a few times when you’ll be frustrating to us. But that’s to be expected. That’s exactly, in some ways, the point. But you can count on me, you can count on us, to treat all of you with the immense respect you deserve and to give you what you need to do the jobs that you’re doing that are so important to our country and to our democracy...It’s an adventure. I am really, really glad that we’re in it together. Welcome back to the press room. This is your press room.”

Pinch me now.

I suppose we shouldn’t applaud when an American official defends freedom of the press, but it sure beats “enemy of the people.” It’s a step up from Mike Pompeo, the back-bench House Republican hack who failed upwards all the way to the State Department, where he trashed the truth and shredded our moral authority worldwide.

Here at home, we’re locked in a battle between democracy and incipient grassroots fascism. Ultimately, it’s a battle between truth (the lifeblood of democratic self-governance) and lies (the toys of fascists). If lying wins, we will lose our national soul, perhaps forever.

Blinken plays a key role in that battle. A secretary of state’s core nonpartisan mission is to tout American values around the world - and press freedom is crucial to that mission. Blinken, by dint of his instincts and experience, understands that America has no business preaching to other nations about freedom unless it sets an example for all to see.

Pompeo, who lashed out at reporters who dared ask him about the impeachable acts of his boss, abolished regular press briefings and assailed journalists as “unhinged,” never seemed to grasp the State Department’s mission.

One priceless moment came in 2019, when Trump decreed in a tweet that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. Shortly thereafter, Pompeo appeared on Jake Tapper’s CNN show.

Tapper asked: “Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?”

Pompeo: “Yes.”

Tapper: “But the president said he doesn’t.”

Pompeo: “That’s not what he said.”

Tapper: “He tweeted, ‘There’s no longer a nuclear threat from Korea.’ That’s just a direct quote.”

And how embarrassing it was, for a secretary of state, to be lectured by an interviewer in Kazakhstan. 

One year ago, on the eve of a trip to that country, Pompeo had unleashed an F-bomb tirade on an NPR reporter who’d sought to ask him inconvenient questions, and had thrown another NPR reporter off his plane. His foreign interviewer brought up the NPR incidents and asked him: “What kind of message (about America) does it send to countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom?”

Pompeo’s answer: “It’s a perfect message.”

Suffice it so say that, on the eve of Antony Blinken’s welcome ascent, the world’s supposedly top democracy was no longer a champion of press freedom. According to the international rankings posted by Reporters Without Borders, America is currently 45th in the world - trailing nations like Botswana, Latvia, Lithuania, and Namibia.

As Blinken said, “This is a critical moment for protecting and defending democracy, including right here at home.” There’s not a moment to lose.

Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at Email him at