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Marking 50 years as a journalist and commentator, popular syndicated columnist Cal Thomas says America’s future is closely tied to the education of our children.
“My hope, again, goes back to educating our children and grandchildren in ways that our parents and grandparents educated us,” Thomas says. “And if you don’t rescue the next generation, you’re not going to have much of a country anymore.”
Born in the District of Columbia, Thomas began his career at age 16 working as a disc jockey at a radio station in suburban Maryland. He later landed a job as a copy boy at NBC News’ Washington bureau and became a reporter. He began to write a column in 1984.
Today, Thomas is one of America’s best-known and most popular syndicated columnists, despite being a conservative. A longtime fixture on Fox News Channel, he is the author of 14 books, including “A Watchman in the Night: What I’ve Seen Over 50 Years Reporting on America,” which is just out.
Thomas joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the changes he has witnessed in America over 50 years and what he foresees the future may hold for the nation.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my distinct privilege today to welcome to the show a man who really needs no introduction, but is known to many of our listeners for his brilliant analysis and his syndicated columns. He’s authored now 14 books. Cal Thomas is here with us today.
Cal Thomas: Well, thank you, Virginia, for not saying you need to do an introduction.
Allen: Well, I’m thrilled that today we get to talk about your latest book, “A Watchman in the Night.” And this recounts what you’ve seen over the past 50 years in the journalism field. And I was really interested to learn that you’ve been writing, you’ve been in the field of journalism since you were 16 years old. What were you writing about at the age of 16?
Thomas: Well, when I was 16, I was an announcer, a disc jockey at a suburban Maryland radio station just outside of Washington. So I really didn’t get started in journalism until a couple of years later when I got a job as a copy boy at the NBC News division here in Washington. And that interested me a lot because I was surrounded by really great journalists.
These people had come from wire services and newspapers and really knew how to write, they wrote all their own stuff. I was in charge of filing their scripts and that was a free writing class for me. So they were my mentors and later I became a reporter and then in 1984, a newspaper columnist.
And it’s been a great career. I think the best part of it is the people you get to meet from all walks of life. I don’t know any other job other than maybe president where you get to meet people from such diverse backgrounds and professions.
Allen: Well, 50 years is a long time in any career.
Thomas: Yeah, I’m old.
Allen: Did you ever consider getting out of journalism, doing something totally different?
Thomas: Not really. Actually, when I started out, I wanted to be in show business. Musical comedy was my favorite show business expression and still is. Now, the news has become show business, so I’ve arrived.
Allen: Well, there you go. Well, your Christian faith, I know, plays a huge role in your writing. And of course, in journalism, our worldview comes through no matter what. And of course, when you’re writing columns, syndicated pieces, that worldview is supposed to come through. How does your own faith influence the way that you write and even maybe the subjects that you choose to write about?
Thomas: Well, the one thing I’ve learned over the years, and certainly as a Christian, is that human nature never changes. So you can elect this candidate or that candidate, you can be for this party or that party. And while there are certain benefits to one party and one candidate over another, the basic flaw of all humanity is our fallen human nature.
So I’m reminded of what King David said when he was king over Israel, “Put not your trust in princes and kings, for in mortal flesh, they cannot save.” And I think while there are certainly good programs and ideas that I support, from the economy to human relationships to foreign policy, the fact is that no political leader is going to be able to solve the real problem, which is deep in the human heart of every individual.
So I don’t claim that everything I write is somehow biblical or the words of God, but I do begin with a standard of right and wrong, good and evil, and things that have worked and things that haven’t.
I wrote a previous book called “What Works” and the basic point of it was if something, a program, is working and can’t be done better by the private sector at a lower cost, then we keep it. And if the opposite is true, then we get rid of it. Remember Ronald Reagan’s great line that, “The only proof of eternal life in Washington is a government program.” And it’s true.
So in business you do that, if something isn’t working, a sales strategy, you try another strategy. But in government, things just keep on going and going and going and the debt increases, $31.4 trillion as of today, and nobody wants to cut even the rate of spending increase.
So I start with a standard, looking back in the past, not living in it, but seeing what worked in the past. We’re not the first generation to ever walk the earth. We have a history, we can see what worked and what didn’t in the past. We don’t have to repeat history over and over again, but sadly, too many of us do.
Allen: As a watchman here in America, you’ve seen many things unfold over the decades. Are there maybe two or three events or moments in the past 50 years in America’s history that you would point to as really critical, as points that, for better or worse, have defined where we are, where we’re going as a country and have really influenced our trajectory?
Thomas: Yeah, I think, of course, the 1960s continued to reverberate. You had the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. You had the Vietnam War protests. Then you had Watergate and [Richard] Nixon. And into all of these was created a certain level of cynicism about institutions, about politics, about leadership that I think continues to reverberate, sadly, today. You see the trust in the media at an all-time low, down along the level of Congress. Trust in institutions has faded significantly. So I think the ’60s was a major impact on this country that still reverberates today.
Allen: And you mentioned a lack of trust in the media. I do think a lot of that can be founded, there’s a lot of information out there that I think folks, when they look at so many of the large media corporations, they’ve lost trust in them, they’ve lost faith, as you said. How do you think media can go about, for one, restoring that trust with the common man, how journalists can do that? And where do you yourself get your news?
Thomas: Well, first of all, I think that any other industry that denies what major consumers or potential consumers think is writing its own death knell. This is the only profession I’m aware of that doesn’t care [what] large numbers of Americans—conservatives, Christians, patriots, people who served in the military—think. And the only response they have to that is not to read their newspapers and not to watch their TV channels.
You see ratings down, except when a big event happens. You see newspaper readership down, especially among the young. And I think a free and strong press is essential to a constitutional republic. It’s the only profession mentioned in the Constitution in the First Amendment. And even the people who wrote the Constitution were often attacked by the press, but they understood that in a free society, a free press was extraordinary.
I get my sources through the usual places. I mean, I read four or five newspapers a day—Wall Street Journal for intellectual depth and New York Post for fun in their headlines. But the New York Post has become a better real newspaper than The New York Times and Washington Post. They uncovered the Hunter Biden laptop thing, they’ve done a lot of other stories that the major media cover up.
As a friend of mine says, “The great power of the media is the power to ignore, the stories they don’t cover.” Look at the border and how the mainstream media has basically ignored this for months and now we have the end of Title 42 coming up and probably tens of thousands, maybe even more than before, pouring over our border. They just have not paid attention to it, they’re going to be forced to now, what the political impact of that will be is anybody’s guess.
Allen: When you talk about the division in our country and how we are very splintered as a nation right now and yet you have found a way over the years to befriend those who don’t necessarily agree with you, those on the opposite side of the aisle, you are a conservative yourself, how have you done that and why has that been such a priority for you that you want to make sure you’re maintaining relationships with people that don’t think like you think?
Thomas: Jesus dined with Republicans and sinners. Oh, excuse me, that was publicans. Those are the early Democrats. But I don’t see people on the other side—I see them as my fellow Americans, I see many of them as my friends. Those who are writers like myself, who are very good, I respect and admire their work. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times is one of my favorites, not only because she’s Irish and I love Ireland and I used to have a place there.
But it’s amazing when you don’t name-call and when you don’t treat other Americans as enemies, you open up the possibility of relationships, which allow for you to get a hearing for your ideas while you’re listening to them and how they came to their point of view.
[Abraham] Lincoln in his second inaugural address said, “We should not see ourselves as enemies.” And this was near the end of the Civil War, where more Americans had been killed and killing each other than any other time in our history. And if he could say something like that, why can’t we say something like that?
The answer is that you make money off division, you get TV ratings off division. And you get the idea of a host and two guests and one guest says to the other, “You’re ruining America.” And the other one responds, “No, you’re ruining America.” “Well, you’re a secular humanist.” “Well, you’re a Bible-thumping bigot.” And the host says, “And we’ll be back with more civil discussion after these messages.”
Well, real people don’t communicate like that. You don’t throw open your window in the morning and shout to your neighbor of a different party, “Hey, you no good slob, what are you going to do to ruin America today?” You wouldn’t be living in the neighborhood in peace and security very long.
But the networks and certain other members of the media have an interest in keeping us divided because they think it makes ratings. That’s why you never see any solutions to problems, you only have people issuing their rhetorical talking points. Nothing’s ever solved.
Allen: So where does that leave us as a country? Because we know that with those increased ratings flows money and money often drives the conversation, unfortunately, even in journalism. So what’s the path forward?
Thomas: I think we have to reach the younger generation. And I have always believed, especially in recent years, that we’ve got to stop sending our children and grandchildren into these reeducation camps with drag queen story time, transgenderism, critical race theory, “America’s a terrible country.” And we need to put them in schools where they’re taught the real history of America, the values that helped build and sustain this country—patriotism, respect for parents, all of these things.
They were part of something called the McGuffey Readers over a century ago that were supplements in our public schools that taught all of these things, that reinforced what was being taught and modeled in the home and the churches. But now we don’t have that, we have a kind of secular progressivism.
And so, you have to rescue the next generation. You’re not going to do much for those who are now adults, but the next generation you can rescue by not sending them into these schools and universities, which teach values, ideas, and history that are counter to what a lot of Americans believe.
Allen: Now, in speaking about the problems that we’re seeing in the nation today, some of your recent columns have been commentaries, critiques of cities, some of America’s major cities like Chicago, New York, where we’ve seen crime, increased homelessness. How did those cities get to that place? You’ve been reporting, following for so much of your career what goes on in America’s major cities, what’s unfolded?
Thomas: Well, they’re all run by liberal Democrats, for one thing. And they are more interested in appealing to a certain demographic than they are in solving the prime problems, as you say, of crime and homelessness.
The thing that amazes me is that people continue to vote for these candidates and these elected officials. They worry about crime in their neighborhoods, but they vote for mayors who want to defund or in some cases eliminate the police. Well, why would you do this? They keep voting for school board members who preside over failing public schools, especially in minority communities, and yet they say they want their child to have a good education. Why would you do that?
So I think when [Donald] Trump spoke to a largely African American group—and in 2016, he said, “Why are you still voting for these people? Your schools are a mess, your cities are a mess. What have they done for you in the last 40 years?” It’s a great question. And I think Republicans and conservatives need to continue to put the Democrats on defense for what they’ve done in our cities. It’s disgusting.
Oregon, the whole state is messed up. San Francisco. Los Angeles. San Francisco, Nordstrom’s just announced the closing of two of its stores because it can’t make a profit anymore with all the lootings. Same with Walgreens and these other places.
But they’re all Democrat-run cities. And if you’re going to keep voting for these people, you’re going to get the same thing. It’s one of the reasons so many people are moving out and it’s hard to get U-Hauls now because they’re all taken up.
Allen: I imagine that as you follow all of these events, it can feel a little depressing, and it is a little bit depressing when we look at what’s going on in the country. And yet you seem to genuinely enjoy what you do, Mr. Thomas, and you inject a lot of humor into your writing. Why do you think that’s so important, to use humor?
Thomas: Well, as Mary Poppins said, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” And there are a lot of things to laugh about—I mean, the stupidity and the silliness of things. The old definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes.
But I’m basically a frustrated performer, I wanted to go into show business early on in my career and I think that laughing at things, ridicule is a great way sometimes to make a political point without labeling or demeaning another person.
So usually I ask, “Well, how’s that policy working out for you? It’s not doing too good. You say you care about the poor, they’re just as many poor now as there were when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society began. So how’s that working out for you?” So I tried to hold the other side, if you will, here’s using a phrase I say I try not to use, but the people with a different point of view, accountable for the standards or lack of standards that they’ve set for themselves.
Allen: Sure. Now, I asked you earlier if there was a major event in American history that you thought was very influential, that really shaped where we are today, and you said the 1960s. What about a person or two that you would point to, a man or a woman, maybe they have been a known leader in America, maybe not, who’s really shaped our country in the last 50 years?
Thomas: Well, the easy, default answer, of course, is Ronald Reagan, who stood up to the Soviet Union and the Left. When he put Pershing missiles into Eastern Europe, the Left screamed and yelled that he was going to launch nuclear war. Instead, it just did the opposite, it made [Mikhail] Gorbachev stand down and it brought down the Berlin Wall and opened up Eastern Europe to the freedom that it enjoys today. We still had [Vladimir] Putin in the former Soviet Union who is as big a threat as some of the Soviet leaders were, but still, it’s opened up opportunities for people to grasp.
So I think while Reagan was significant, I think John Kennedy in his own way, because he got young people interested in politics and government again. I think [George W.] Bush, 43, who did a great job after 9/11. I think we stayed in Afghanistan too long and pulled out too precipitously before some stability was established.
And there have been other good leaders. I thought Calvin Coolidge, named after his two sons, our 30th president, had some great ideas. He left with a balanced budget. And interestingly, Bill Clinton of all people had a balanced budget twice. Who ever talks about balancing the budget anymore?
So leaders come and go, and I think Kennedy’s great line in his inaugural speech has been lost in our time, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And I would simply ask, what could you do for yourself that is better than anything government can do? I see government as a last resort, but the politicians have made it a first resource. And that’s the reason we have such a huge debt now, people turn to government first instead of look to themselves.
Allen: So in your book, you talk about America’s past, you talk about where we are today, but you also talk about our future. So as the watchman looking out, where do you see us headed?
Thomas: Well, I chose the title “A Watchman in the Night” from an Old Testament verse when the ancient Israelites used to put a watchman on the wall to look out for invading armies or bad guys who wanted to harm the Jewish people.
I see certain ideas and values and standards as always working. I use the analogy that today we have the notion that if you show up at the checkout counter at the grocery store with two gallons of milk and say, “Well, my standard is that these two gallons are really only one gallon,” or you show up with two pounds of meat, “And my standard is that I only want to pay for one pound because that’s my standard.” The next voice you hear would be, “Security.”
But that’s the way it is today, there are no universal standards, there’s only your personal one. Well, how’s that working out? We are more divided than ever. We have groups now instead of individuals. We are parts of tribes—male, female, transgender; gay, straight, binary, whatever; black, white, Hispanic.
Whatever happened to our national motto, e pluribus unum—out of many, one? Now we are out of one, many. We’re hyphenated Americans, we’re divided Americans.
So my hope, again, goes back to educating our children and grandchildren in ways that our parents and grandparents educated us. And if you don’t rescue the next generation, you’re not going to have much of a country anymore.
Allen: Well, Cal Thomas, we certainly thank you for your analysis for the past 50 years and we encourage all of our listeners to pick up a copy of “A Watchman in the Night.” You get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, it’s on Kindle. Is an audio edition coming as well?
Thomas: They have an audio edition, they picked some actor to do it, I guess they didn’t like my voice.
Allen: Excellent. Well, the book is out today on Tuesday, May the 9th, and we look forward to getting so many responses. I know so many who’ve gotten preview copies of it, have loved it. And I think all of our listeners are really going to enjoy reading your thoughts as you have reported for 50 years on America.
Thomas: Thank you, Virginia.
Allen: Thank you so much.
Thomas: All right.
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