The New D.C.: Steak, Tax Cuts, Morning in America?
Ben White, native Washingtonian, cut his journalistic teeth in D.C., working for Washington Post icon David Broder before continuing his career at the Financial Times, the New York Times, and now POLITICO, where he writes the influential Morning Money column. Relying on Ben each morning as our first read on what is happening in politics and what matters, we caught up with him after an insightful public interview with CNBC senior contributor Larry Kudlow.
You grew up in Chevy Chase and live in the New York area. Do you miss Washington?
I miss D.C. a lot. It was an incredible place to grow up -- both to be steeped in politics in Washington but also to be connected to the town. My dad was a real estate development lawyer who could tell you about any building at any time. He worked in the [D.C.] city planning office and spent a lot of time on the formation of the government before going into private practice. I learned a lot about D.C. from him and grew to love it as a city both for the politics, which I loved, but also as a home town.
The city has changed a lot.
Going to church at Luther Place on Thomas Circle, it was pretty rough then. Going through the parking lot we walked over crack vials, and all that sort of stuff. And it's obviously been transformed into a very nice and gentrified area, like so many of the neighborhoods that were not as "happening" then. It's awesome to see.
Barron Trump may go to school here. He's 10 years old. You went to St. Alban's and Edmund Burke, another private school. Any thoughts?
Barron seems like someone who might end up at St. Alban's. It's a school for a lot of the elite politicians’ kids in Washington. I would see him more as a St. Alban's guy than let's say a Sidwell person.
Georgetown has been a little "out of the spotlight," in recent years, some say. But if Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner move here, that could change.
If they're there, they'll do a lot of entertaining, I would think. If you're in the inner circle, you'll want to be there. A lot of the leading media people will want to be there. So maybe the days of the Georgetown salon will come back.
Do you think Trump needs sort of a "softening" figure around him?
100%, yes. He absolutely does. There are a lot of people who are scared of Trump. He's not coming into office with a sky-high approval rating by any means. Ivanka and Jared are well known in New York for moving in social circles with a lot of people, and a lot of people know the Trumps' softer side and know the family side of Trump through Ivanka and Jared. They have a lot of social connections. And people like her. She's very popular.
The Obamas were part of a blossoming of restaurant culture in Washington. Do you think the Trump administration is going to be better for steak houses?
I would imagine this administration will be very good for steak houses. And cigar sales. There will be a throwback feel to it. He's a guy who likes to eat steak.
Have you been to the Trump Hotel?
It's beautiful. I was kind of taken aback by how pretty it is. I've gotten a lot of pushback on Facebook for saying that.
It's not like he's not made nice hotels before. He's obviously very proud of that one. There will be people who stay there because Trump likes it when people stay there. The currying favor aspect...diplomats and others…that gives some people pause. I don't think he really cares. He's made it pretty clear that he doesn't.
Culturally, are we going back to the 80s?
Trump's hayday was the 80s. That's when he became "Donald Trump." So I think from a style perspective, there will be some of that, and from a policy perspective, he wants to do what Reagan did, which was slash tax rates, create faster economic growth and get people out there spending more money. And that's what happened in the 80s. Of course, we had a hangover -- a recession, a financial crisis. There are costs to be paid when you govern in that way and create big debts and deficits. But those come later and you do tend to get boom years in the intervening time.
When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
Probably as soon as I was in elementary school. I loved writing, I always loved talking about politics and reading the Washington Post. I worked for David Broder at the The Post and then the Financial Times, The New York Times, and then Politico.
Politics are in your blood.
Yes. I wound up deciding between being a minister and being a journalist. I even did a little divinity school before going full-time into journalism. We have a priest in the family -- my brother is a Catholic priest.
Who are your heroes?
Broder is definitely one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has always been a personal hero of mine.
Remind us who that is.
He was a German theologian who was part of the resistance in Nazi Germany. I've always been influenced by his example. The other ones would be obvious: Jackie Robinson. I'm a big sports guy. Martin Luther King, Jr., leaders of the Civil Rights era.
Speaking of that, what's your advice for Donald Trump regarding the Tweeting and attacking people? What's the danger there?
I think the danger is that he often punches down at people who will have a hard time fighting back and will come in for a lot of abuse if he criticizes them on Twitter. I don't think he should do that. I also think he should ease up on the constant attacking of the press. I understand that he feels that he wasn't covered fairly during the campaign and that all the stories about him were negative. But his modus operandi now is to turn on the TV and if he sees anybody criticize him, to immediately lash out at them as biased and unfair. He does it to the New York Times, he does it to NBC, etc.
Should they just develop a thicker skin?
I’m worried that he is poisoning people's minds against good, factual journalism. We can't operate as a country if we don't operate from a common set of facts that are accepted as truth. We can't traffic in conspiracy theories all the time. The relentless attacking on a free and fair press is dangerous.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
You can't have a democracy without a free press. And what Trump is doing right now is trying to intimidate the press into not being critical of him. This gets into the whole question about cable TV news and the extent to which it is sort of dependent on "all Trump all the time" coverage. That's definitely good for revenue, but to do that you need access to Trump people and you need them on your air. And they can definitely threaten to deny that presence and that access if they don't like the coverage. That's a bad situation to be in.
Thank you, Ben. We hope to see you (and your mom!) in Washington again soon...