Charlie Savage - “Part of the Fun of the Job Is That Things Never Stand Still”

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Nov 24, 2018
by Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu and Oscar Tollast
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Charlie Savage - “Part of the Fun of the Job Is That Things Never Stand Still”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist speaks with Salzburg Global during the latest symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association Charlie Savage speaking at the 16th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

While many journalists agree the job can feel thankless on occasions, the career of a reporter at least is never mundane – particularly at the time of writing. Charlie Savage, Washington correspondent of the New York Times, says: “Part of the fun of the job is that things never stand still.... it is just different, constantly different.”

Savage was a faculty member at this year’s Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) symposium - Understanding America in the 21st Century – Culture and Politics - held in September at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, Austria.

As a correspondent for the Times, covering national security and legal issues in a post-9/11 America, Savage has witnessed and reported on a fair share of significant change, covering both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama’s administrations both for the Boston Globe and the Times. The 2007 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting was awarded to Savage for his “revelations that President Bush often used ‘signing statements’ to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.”

After digging into the Bush administration further, Savage recognized there was a bigger story to tell. He says, “I started to understand that there was undergirding this [policy direction] a strong push coming out of Vice President [Dick] Cheney’s office to expand presidential powers an end to itself… It was an insight that explains, in my mind, so much about what was going on, but you really couldn’t do justice to it in a newspaper-length article or even a long magazine. It needed to be a book to make the pattern – to sort of suss out their connections, and it just was a book I needed to write.” As a consequence, Savage published Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency & the Subversion of American Democracy in 2007, the sixth year of the Bush presidency.

Eight years later, Savage published Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. In Savage’s words, he describes it as “kind of a sequel but kind of not.” Why? “The Obama administration did not have an ideological approach to executive power like the Bush administration did that explains its pattern of behavior…” Savage says. He adds, “They did accept that the war on terror was a real war, which some liberals deny, but they thought they could fight it within the constraints of what they saw as the rule of law - without making expansive assertions of presidential power to bypass laws and treaties, like Bush and Cheney had done.

“The result was something of a muddle from one perspective, where they kept legalized versions of some policies they had inherited from Bush, like military commissions and warrantless wiretapping, but got rid of other things, like torture, which displeased people among both the faction that supported the Bush war on terror and the faction that loathed it."

In a presentation at SSASA, Savage drew from both of these books. Commenting on his presentation, he says, “It was trying to get at the question of why it was that Obama did not govern in line with the expectations created by his campaign rhetoric, when everyone thought he was going to dismantle the war on terrorism that the Bush administration had erected - the architecture of things like warrantless wiretapping and indefinite detention at Guantanamo military commissions and all the rest... It was more like he right-sized it.

“[Obama] shaved off the rough corners and he did shut the door on torture but on other things he preserved these authorities even if he was trying to use them more sparingly and with greater legal standing or foundations than perhaps they had when Bush first created them.”

In the same presentation, Savage commented on some of the early insights we could take away from President Donald Trump’s administration. He says, “[Trump’s] rhetoric suggests an authoritarian mindset: whether it is attacking the independent judiciary, attacking a free press, suggesting that he sees law enforcement as an instrument of his own will rather than some sort of independent rule of law based approach to these extraordinary powers…. But then I made the point that notwithstanding all that for the most part that's not how his administration has governed. His administration has while criticizing adverse judicial rulings abided by them.” In short, it is too early to draw conclusions, but Savage believes there is a disconnect between what Trump has said and what he’s been doing in terms of how abnormal it is.

“People have often said to me: ‘Oh, you are going to have a great trilogy here,” Savage says when asked if he is planning on writing about Trump’s approach to national security. While not ruling it out, Savage is yet to be fully convinced a book – at least in this area - is waiting in the wings. Savage says, “For all their differences, the Bush and the Obama administrations both had very coherent strongly philosophical legal policymaking behind them… You could see what they were trying to do and then you could see how from that insight many specific examples across many different themes fit within this pattern. And so, both of those books are very similar in that respect. I have an argument, and then I show how 100 different things all lined up with this argument.

“The Trump administration does not seem to have a very coherent legal [policy making framework]. The role of lawyers in the Trump administration is very limited as far as I can tell and an awful lot of its policy-making seems somewhat capricious and sort of personality-driven and indeed a little bit arbitrary. That means that there is a lot of good books to be written about behind the scenes in these arguments and the sort of menagerie of idiosyncratic people who have their hands on government leaders of power right now. Books like the one Bob Woodward just did [Fear: Trump in the White House], for example, or Fire and Fury [by Michael Wolff] earlier…. there are plenty of good articles about that too, but it's not the kind of thing I do. It doesn't fit within that legal lens.”  

Both of Savage’s books were written in the sixth year of President Bush and President Obama’s administration. Will Savage’s opinion change if there is a sixth year of President Trump’s administration? “We will see how things look,” he adds.


Charlie Savage was a faculty member during Understanding America in the 21st Century – Culture and Politics, part of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) multi-year series. You can capture highlights on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA.