A hushed conference room with walls paneled in dark wood and a table seating no fewer than 20. Outside in the corridor, security guards patrol none too discreetly.
Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, sits at the head of the table. He is a small, quiet man whose words carry the weight of a god.
A group of people sits before him around the table. These folks are being welcomed to the Kennedy School this day “even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community or are in conflict with the values of the Kennedy School itself.”
They have been invited to these hallowed halls “even if their actions or words cause pain,” and the school does not intend to legitimize the painful views.
“Each,” Elmendorf insists, “must be treated with civility.”
I look out at the group seated around the table. I expect to see men and women in orange jumpsuits. I expect to see men and women who have more tattoos than teeth. I expect to see the forces of darkness and hear the voices of the night.
I look down at the title sheet of the conference: “Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2016.”
Sound the alarm, Martha! Ring the tocsin! Hide the cows, and bury the silver!
The politicians have arrived!
For two days, America’s political elite and the beady-eyed swine – from which the phrase “in a pig’s eye” derives – who are called the national press corps are being hosted here at Harvard, where the truth will be dug out of them.
Truth is, however, a slippery and sometimes dangerous thing. “In a time of deceit,” George Orwell is said to have declared, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
At the table, Corey Lewandowski, who perpetually looked like a man who had just consumed a bag of prunes and was Donald Trump’s first campaign manager, said that in 2016, the old ways wouldn’t have worked. “Our goal was to run as a wealthy man, not run from it,” Lewandowski said. “Let Trump be Trump. It didn’t matter what he did; his supporters would never leave him.”
And you could see a bunch of chins, the chins of the other campaign managers around the table, nod in sad agreement.
“I’d just go to him, and he’d write a check,” Lewandowski said. “That was our fundraising.”
So remember that, you young people who are thinking about going into politics: Be born rich. It really helps.
Or you could acquire other benefits.
Hillary Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, said the Trump campaign “provided a platform for white supremacists.” She told us, “It may be a brilliant tactic, (but) I am glad to have lost. I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
“Wow,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s third and final campaign manager, said. “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform? Are you going to look me in the face and tell me that?”
“I did, Kellyanne,” Palmieri said. “I did. I did.”
And, needless to say, the media were a big problem, too.
“The inability to get coverage on issues is so profound,” said Joel Benenson, one of Clinton’s top aides. “We need to examine that. The focus on process really weakens us.”
Most of the Harvard conference was about process, however. Process is the nasty, fun, contentious, combative stuff. Process brings out the campaign managers and the press, who sit around a big table and talk about the evils of process.
You want to talk about issues? Maybe later. If there’s time. And don’t forget process can be profound. Seriously. Like when Barry Bennett, a Trump adviser, said that candidates who stressed their long records of public service “were just shooting themselves in the foot.” They were good politicians, but “people didn’t want good politicians.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, another Trump aide, said: “Nobody cared about solutions. They just wanted to burn it all down and do something with the ashes later.”
Which made for a fascinating conference. But what about that place just outside Harvard called the United States of America? What happens to it?
“There is a risk and real danger Trump poses to America,” Benenson said. “He’s a risk to our national security and a risk to dividing this country.”
And that was just about as far as Conway could be pushed. “He won!” Conway said as if she were teaching civics to a group of Martians. “People decided how they felt, and he won!”
“You won the Electoral College,” Benenson sneered. “Don’t pretend there was a mandate by a majority of voters.”
The Trump people erupted en masse, and one got the distinct impression Benenson was enjoying himself. “There were 2.5 million Americans who thought she was the better candidate,” he said.
“Is it possible there are people who don’t like her and don’t trust her?” Conway said. “That she doesn’t connect with people?”
Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald, who has been working in politics approximately forever, said the Trump people were being too modest. “I don’t think you guys give yourself enough credit for the negative campaign you ran,” she said.
There was charge and countercharge. And of course, there was the inevitable claim that Trump simply lied his way to the Oval Office month after month, week after week, day after day, hour after hour — a claim backed up by videotapes, audiotapes and mere facts.
But Lewandowski had an answer for that, too:
“This is the problem with the media,” he said. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
But you know what? You don’t have to back it up. You don’t even have to get the most votes. Truth and lies seem to count the same in presidential politics today.
How about a conference on that?