Ralph Gardner Jr: Assembling History | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Assembling History

Jan 23, 2021

Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.

Suspecting that the Trump presidency marked a rocky but historic ride for the American people I started collecting front pages of the New York Times on November 9th, 2016, the morning after Donald Trump was elected.

“Trump Triumphs,” the first headline announced in what I believe to be the newspaper’s second largest typeface. The jumbo distinction has been used only five times: “Men Walk On Moon,” “Nixon Resigns,” “1/1/00” for the new millennium, “U.S. Attacked,” after 9/11, and “Obama,” to mark the first black President’s election.

My intention was to accumulate any issues of the “Newspaper of Record” with similarly bold headlines and, at the end of President Trump’s first and hopefully final administration, transform it into some sort of art project. I recall a memorable illustration from the Watergate era. It showed Richard Nixon’s face covered in the lies -- like an especially odious skin condition -- that led to his resignation.

My ambition was some similar treatment for Donald Trump though, because I’m not much of an artist, persuading my older daughter, who is, to confect a masterpiece that encapsulated the malpractice and perfidy of the previous four years.

One could argue that I didn’t give President Trump a chance. But the die seemed cast when, fresh out of the gate, he started hurling epithets such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people.”

But as I sorted through the tear sheets Wednesday, organizing them chronologically with one eye on the TV screen as Donald John Trump boarded Air Force One, preferably for the last time, I realized that the file should remain just as it is; nothing could better describe the roller coaster ride the United States, and the world, experienced starting that morning in early November 2016 when, to quote the Times’ subhead “Outsider Mogul Captures The Presidency, Stunning Clinton In Battleground States.”

I wouldn’t want anybody to think I don’t have a life, that I spend all my time hoarding yellowing newspapers. I seem to be missing a few milestones such as Kamala Harris’s selection as Biden’s running mate. I’m also missing Trump’s inauguration. I suspect I know why. I found his “American Carnage” speech so disturbing that I probably tried to erase it from my consciousness.

But I was back on the case by February 2017 with “Judges Refuse to Reinstate Travel Ban.”

Examining the front pages in totality for the first time – I collected sixty-seven of the them – actually does feel very much like a roller coaster ride with its peaks and troughs but most of all the sensation of dangerous velocity as crises built – the Mueller Inquiry, Trump’s first impeachment – and then ebbed until the next debacle came along.

Say what you will about Donald Trump; he certainly knew how to spark conflict, keeping us glued to our seats.

I counted only a handful of headlines over the last four years that weren’t directly related to Trump and his mischief. In fact, only one of them involved what might be classified as good news, that involved beauty instead of ugliness. Actually, it wasn’t even a headline, it was a front page, above the fold photograph of a black hole in a galaxy some 55 million light-years away.

That it was the only one where nature took center stage just goes to show how successful Donald Trump was at keeping the nation’s consciousness focused almost exclusively on him. Actually, there was another headline in my collection that addressed the natural world. To me, it was ultimately the most chilling headline of the bunch, exceeding even “Trump Incites Mob”. This was it: “Trump Abandoning Global Climate Accord”.

There was but one stretch over the course of the Trump presidency where I was less than diligent in pursuing this project. But I have a good excuse: a pandemic. Documenting the President’s depravity wasn’t worth putting my own health at risk to buy the paper so I probably missed a headline or two.

However, one that is pandemic-related says it all because its math now sadly sounds almost quaint: “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.” The rest of that front page was devoted to a roll call of the victims.

Collecting newspapers isn’t a recent development. I have the entire New York Times series surrounding the Moonwalk in 1969, all sections of it. This time around I’ve saved only the front pages, the exceptions being those that offered a glimmer of hope: “Biden Beats Trump,” “Calls Grow To Remove Trump As U.S. Officials Head For The Exit,” and “Impeached.”

I have one headline left to acquire, which I will have done by the time this commentary airs. It will be the banner devoted to Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. and Kamala Devi Harris’s inauguration as President and Vice President.

My wish is that this project now be at an end, that something resembling normalcy return to politics and to our daily lives.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.