Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

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This week the most coveted awards in journalism were given out, the prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, a man born in Hungary in 1847 and who became a legendary publisher of major American newspapers; (pronounced Pull-itzer.)

It is a very big deal to win a Pulitzer Prize, both for the writers and photographers who win it for their individual, often team, efforts, but also for their editors and publishers.

It can take decades to win one, or, for the fortunate few, it arrives early in their careers. The photographer who’s won the most ever in journalism, four, is Carol Guzy, of The Washington Post — who began her career as a nurse.

In a time when our industry is struggling mightily — tens of thousands of us having been laid off in recent years — this sort of accolade is still something many of us strive for.

If you stay in journalism a few decades, you come to know, and sometimes work with, and possibly deeply admire, many colleagues, sometimes scattered globally. When they win, we’re also cheering for our tribe.

Here’s the list of all the 2017 winners, including history, poetry, drama and music.

One of my favorite stories of 2016, a stunning 18,102 word account of a young combat veteran, was written by The New York Times’ staff writer C.J. Chivers, himself a former Marine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer for feature writing.

His award is one of three Pulitzers awarded to the Times this year. Another went to Australian-born, New Delhi-based freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for breaking news covering the drug war in the Philippines being waged by President Duterte. He also won the award in 2015 for feature photography for documenting the Ebola outbreak.

From his website:

Their Ukrainian practicality did not consider photography to be a viable trade to pursue so at an early age Daniel worked on the farm and at his father’s refrigeration company.

Not so surprising — journalism is still considered a terrible career choice by many parents: it’s professionally insecure, badly paid and sometimes dangerous.

It’s one of the many reasons we, (I’ve been a journalist for decades), are so proud of our colleagues who persist and succeed. It’s damn hard!

In an era of “fake news” and endless claims to the “truth”, we need media literate readers/listeners and viewers more than ever.

And we need smart, tough, determined reporters, whether visual or word-focused, and their editors and their publishers, to stay committed to strong, intelligent work of lasting value —- not just chase clicks and views.

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David Farenthhold — we all knew he had this one in the bag — took the prize for National Reporting, on Trump, for The Washington Post.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s death aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of Columbia University and scholars, and “persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors.” Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Also from the Pulitzer website:

What do Pulitzer Prize winners get when they win?

There are 21 Pulitzer categories. In 20 of those categories the winners receive a $10,000 cash award and a certificate. Only the winner in the Public Service category of the Journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Public Service prize is always awarded to a news organization, not an individual, although an individual may be named in the citation.

Selfishly, I have a deeply vested interest in the Pulitzers — as we have one in the family. It belongs to my husband, Jose R. Lopez, whose blog is here.

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On 9/11, as fighter jets screamed over Manhattan and the Twin Towers fell, Jose was a team member of talented, fast-thinking, quick-acting New York Times photographers and photo editors covering it.

They won the Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography.

Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau — scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.

There was no way to physically get into Manhattan from Brooklyn in time, to reach the Times‘ building that day.

On a day of confusion and terror and trauma, the Times team stayed calm and organized. Their job — our job — always, is to witness, testify, explain, share.

That’s what we do.

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Columbia Journalism School

A morning filled with orchids

By Caitlin Kelly

Are you as mad for flowers as I am?

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My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.

The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.

It ends April 9.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.

This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.

The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.

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An exercise in optimism

By Caitlin Kelly

I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.

I hope I am!

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada

Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:

Good health

Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.

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Co. Donegal, Ireland, June 2015

Leisure

This is such a privilege!

So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.

Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.

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A cup of tea at the Ritz in London, January 2015

Disposable income

Another mark of privilege.

Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.

We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.

Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.

The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.

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Paris

In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.

Internationally?

It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.

Where do you want to travel to next and why?

Stand down

By Caitlin Kelly

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Much wisdom in this (too-long) blog post, on Medium:

True growth and success is always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.

In order to do this, you must properly “recover” from the following things on a daily basis:

  1. Work

  2. Technology

  3. People

  4. Food

  5. Fitness

  6. Being awake

This is so damn smart!

This is so utterly counter-cultural.

I make it a point to recover from all six of these, as a matter of course and of self-care and self-preservation.

For numbers 1 through 3, I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed, so setting boundaries, and keeping them, doesn’t mean potentially threatening my livelihood.

For Number four, I eat 750 calories two days a week.

For fitness, I work out/exercise 3-4 days a week, sometimes (sigh) only twice.

Working from home, I nap as needed, sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes; without dependents, not difficult.

Living in the United States these days, and I live/work near New York City in a thrashing/disrupted industry (journalism), means waking up every single morning in something of a panic.

Not helped by the daily chaos of Trump.

Whose civil rights will disappear tomorrow?

Which new executive order will require more calls and emails to elected representatives or another street protest?

Should we move back to Canada? When? Where?

If I stay — or if we go — would we be able to find work?

 

This is also brilliant, from a writing-focused website called Catapult:

Call it self-care, sure, or call it life, but a soul is a thing that requires tending. The soul is not quite interchangeable with “heart” or “mind,” or any other word we mean to denote only the “spiritual” part of a person. In the words of the philosopher Dallas Willard, the soul is the entire inner person, not detached from bodily life but inclusive of it, as well as heart and mind, thought and motivation, feeling and judgment. An untended soul drifts toward inertia.

But what does my soul benefit from being “productive”? Am I any number of inches closer to God because I wrote an essay that was praised by someone I desperately wanted to impress? What is the moral imperative to produce?

These questions are all tricks to say that I have no idea what the answer is. I know that when I am anxious, I often think I can produce my way out of it. I have an uneasy relationship with productivity, thinking my anxiety will be placated if I just do enough big things.

 

Every day, I see talented, experienced friends losing well-paid jobs in our field, with no certainty of being able to replace them. One pal needed almost an entire year to find his new job, yet another insecure contract position.

We also live in a time and age relentlessly demanding increased productivity.

We’re exhorted constantly to domorebetterfaster!

 

Not to think.

Not to reflect.

Not to sit still, alone, in silence.

 

Not to take good, slow, thoughtful care of our most valuable resource, our health.

And yet, and yet, we’re each of us simply human, de facto limited in some way, whether by lack of time, impaired physical stamina, weakened emotional energy or by restricted access to social capital or financing.

We’re not robots.

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We’re not robots. We need to rest and recharge.

We’re not machines, no matter what laissez-faire capitalism (and stagnant wages) relentlessly demand.

We’re all running too hard, too fast.

As a result, many of us vibrate with anxiety, shoving sweets and fats and pills and liquor down our throats in an attempt to satiate much deeper, more painful sadness and anxiety, whether personal, political or professional.

Sometimes (sigh) all three.

It’s a very wise choice to pay attention, to read the signals, to try our best to stay safe and to protect the rights and needs of others.

But not 24/7.

Here’s a 14-minute story (from one of the best shows I listen to on NPR, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC), about how stressed many Americans are feeling since the election of Trump.

Chronic anxiety will kill you.

Even soldiers need sleep, food, companionship.

Stand down!

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A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?

Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.

It was about 6:30.

Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.

Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!

I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.

A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.

“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.

He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.

He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?

It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.

That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.

An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.

I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.

He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.

We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)

“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.

It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.

We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.

I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.

(Just in case, though:

  1. Make sure you don’t get drunk; stay safe!
  2. Make sure no one has access to your drink except you (beware someone dumping rohypnol; i.e. getting roofied.)
  3. Make sure you feel 100 percent comfortable with the tone and content of any conversation. If not, move or leave.
  4. Make sure you can leave quickly and safely, if necessary; trust your instincts.)

 

Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?

Who are “the media”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, much missed

Unless you know a journalist, or are one, dismissing “the media” is an easy — and lazy — way to describe the millions of men and women, of all ages, worldwide, whose chosen profession is to find and gather accurate, verifiable data and disseminate it as widely as their medium allows.

It’s disingenuous and misguided to mistake journalists for stenographers.

As the late David Carr once said: “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”

Our job is to challenge authority.

To speak truth to power.

To insist upon clear, straight, verifiable answers.

Those who don’t?

They’re a joke.

As Trump bellows and whines and threatens to keep making reporting on his administration difficult for all but the most fawning, it’s useful to remember what 99 percent of journalists actually do:

— We report on science and medicine, digging through journals, speaking to scientists and researchers and physicians and patients, trying to make sure the latest “miracle” drug or “breakthrough” cure really is that, and not just the prelude to a Big Pharma IPO.

— We cover local government, school board meetings and other minutiae of local life, where every hard-earned taxpayer dollar is spent (or wasted.) We read long boring reports and sit through long boring meetings to keep eyes and ears on elected officials.

— We race toward danger to photograph war, natural disaster, fires and crashes. Photographers and videographers have no luxury of distance. They, too, get injured, physically and emotionally. Some are killed in the line of duty — like news photographers Tim Hetherington, Anja Niedringhaus and Marie Colvin, their names meaningless to those beyond our circles. But their bravery and determination to keep telling stories, no matter how dangerous, inspires many, like our young friend Alex Wroblewski, who’s been to Iraq several times.

— We sit with people whose lives have been shattered by crime and tragedy. We listen carefully to their stories and try to be compassionate, even while we take notes or record them for posterity. Through those stories, we try to elucidate what it means to live with daily pain and grief, the cost of lawlessness and mayhem.

— We cover cops and courts, holding police and other powerful authorities to account, to restrain, when possible, their abuses of lethal power.

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— We watch, listen to and share our experiences of culture, whether Beyonce’s latest album or a performance of 16th. century lute music.

— We dig into business and corporate behavior, reading the tiny print at the back of annual reports. We speak to workers at every level to hear their firsthand experiences, not just the shiny version presented, forcefully, by public relation staffs.

— We watch the larger culture for shifts and trends, trying to make sense of a world moving at dizzying speed.

And that’s still a very, very small portion of what we do.

Even as Trump stamps his feet and shrieks about the “failing” New York Times, (for whom I write freelance and for whom my husband worked for 31 years), pretend you’re a journalist — and fact-check!

The Times, Washington Post and others he attacks relentlessly are seeing a huge jump in subscriptions.

Even as Trump has shut them out of the White House briefing room:

The White House blocked several news outlets from attending a closed-door briefing Friday afternoon with press secretary Sean Spicer, a decision that drew strong rebukes from news organizations and may only heighten tensions between the press corps and the administration.

The New York Times and CNN, both of which have reported critically on the administration and are frequent targets of President Donald Trump, were prohibited from attending. The Huffington Post was also denied entry.

Both the Associated Press and Time magazine, which were allowed to enter, boycotted out of solidarity with those news organizations kept out.

Spicer said prior to the start of the administration that the White House may skip televised daily briefings in favor of an off-camera briefing or gaggle with reporters.

The next time someone bitches about “the media” send them the link to this blog post, please.

There is no “the media.”

There are millions of individuals working hard to do their best.

Some are biased.

Some are lazy.

Some are useless.

Many are not.

Imagine a world without accurate verifiable information, on any subject.

Is that a world you prefer?

Two NY weeks, 5 artists

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.

That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)

We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.

If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.

From Wikipedia:

The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;[15] and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.

I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.

This week’s entire concert was improvised.

From Wikipedia:

Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.

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That was Wednesday night.

I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.

Back into the city!

I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.

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It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.

I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.

In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.

We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.

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On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.

The week before, I heard director Kelly Reichardt being interviewed by fellow director Jonathan Demme after a screening of her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff at a local art film house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.

She’s directed five feature films in a decade — no big deal for a guy, maybe, but a very big deal for a woman; only 13 percent are female.

As someone who’s a huge fan of movies, and of her films, this was a huge thrill. She was tiny, low-key, down to earth.

As a creative woman, it’s such a delight to see and hear another woman who’s carved such a great path for herself.

I went up later to say hello and was a total fan-girl, and she was warm and gracious.

Do you love culture?

What have you seen or heard lately that knocked your socks off?

Living in chaos is exhausting

By Caitlin Kelly

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photo: NBC News

It took me a while to figure this out.

The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.

He scowls.

He rages.

He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.

He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.

He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.

There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.

What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?

Been there, lived it and hated it.

I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.

Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.

How to cope:

We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.

We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.

We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!

The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.

Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist. 

Four years of this?

I’m exhausted after a week.

This is what the press is for

By Caitlin Kelly

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Speaking truth to power.

That’s it, really.

Sure, some journalists write puffy stories about luxury hotels and mascara and shiny new tech toys.

But the journalism a democracy relies on is one with consistent, ready access to its leader(s), holding them and their government to account.

If you don’t grasp this essential fact, you’re in for a very  long and ugly fight.

In his very first press briefing, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer managed to stun the entire White House press corps with a toxic mix of hostility, aggression and threats.

This isn’t how a briefing is supposed to go. Certainly not from the very start.

Oh, and fleeing the room without taking a single question.

Not a great start to a new administration.

This is how it works:

Journalists are hired to find out what the hell is actually going on in the halls of power.

They cultivate sources.

They dig.

They read long, tedious boring documents, where the meat of the matter may be buried 537 pages in.

They do not give up easily.

We do not give up easily.

A President who whines about every perceived slight to his fragile ego, and an attack dog press secretary , are not what Americans need or deserve.

Millions of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump, and even those who did need and deserve to know what he is doing — beyond his relentless tweets.

And the rest of the world is also watching and listening, as confused and concerned as many Americans are by the oldest President ever elected, a proven liar, cheat and misogynist — and a man who has never served a minute in office before.

The Presidency carries tremendous power, and the trappings of office are indeed impressive and daunting: a residence in the White House, access to nuclear codes, travel in Air Force One and Marine One, rafts of attendants snapping salutes.

But he works for us.

He works for the American people.

If the press, whose role it is to represent every voter unable to ask tough questions directly, are body-slammed from the very start, look forward to the most persistent, aggressive and unrelenting scrutiny of this administration you can begin to imagine.