Covering History

4 minute read

In the best of times, a presidential campaign acts as a quadrennial checkup for the body politic, a series of tests that measure our health and national well-being. In the worst of times, we discover we’re sicker than we knew.

Donald Trump has triumphed after a historic and bruising campaign, to face a historic challenge: to be as astute in uniting the country as he was in dividing it over the length of this race, to prescribe a course that somehow breaks the fever that built day after day after day and burns hot still.

The campaign of 2016 will be remembered for many things, but surely high among them was the constant experience of surprising alarm, and alarming surprise. Trump said and did things that had never been done before; political experts were serially humiliated by events that defied every prediction they’d made. Both Trump and Hillary Clinton warned that the stakes this time were uniquely high, that their opponent represented a threat to democracy itself. No institution came through unscarred–certainly not the press, nor the parties or political leaders, nor the FBI.

When I asked Michael Scherer, our brilliant bureau chief in Washington, what challenged him most in guiding our reporters in the field, he said it was dealing with a race that had as its substance “efforts to undermine the democratic norms and institutions of our country–from the Republican nominee, who prided himself on breaking rules, to a Democratic nominee who often campaigned from a distant cocoon. This forced us to rethink a lot of how we do things. And we had to adjust without sacrificing out mission: to be tough, fair, right and ultimately help voters make sense of the decision they had to make.”

The team Scherer and senior editor Ryan Teague Beckwith deployed ranged from reporters Charlotte Alter and Sam Frizell, covering their first campaigns, to columnist Joe Klein, covering his 11th. Zeke J. Miller, Philip Elliott, Alex Altman, Tessa Berenson and others logged countless miles, from New Hampshire to Chicago to the suddenly unsettled precincts of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan. Director of data journalism Chris Wilson and editor Julie Shapiro devised interactive features to both explain and entertain (“Do you eat like a Republican or a Democrat?”), while our graphics team of Lon Tweeten, Heather Jones and Emily Barone produced acres of charts capturing the changing shape of the race. Ideas editor Claire Howorth recruited a range of contributors from Princeton professor Eddie Glaude to political analyst Elise Jordan to retired Admiral James Stavridis. Creative director D.W. Pine created more than a dozen campaign covers, including the serial “Meltdown” images and this issue, while editor at large David Von Drehle brought his unique perspective as both journalist and historian to our coverage.

Ultimately any campaign, even as unsettling a one as this, is a chance to learn. Trump, on his way to beating 16 challengers and collecting more primary votes than any Republican ever before, exposed and then deepened fissures in a party he barely belonged to. Where the GOP stands on trade, immigration, entitlement reform and foreign policy is an open question after a race in which the leadership of the party often appeared fed up with its rank and file–and vice versa. Meanwhile the Democrats, faced with a shocking loss, are hardly united. That Bernie Sanders could have caused Clinton so much heartburn through the fall and winter, and that voters ultimately rejected a candidate so experienced and qualified in favor of a wild gamble, speaks to a party badly in need of new ideas, new messages, new messengers.

And so one conversation ends and another begins. At TIME we are committed to a conversation that is civil, an exploration that is open-minded, a vision that is hopeful. This is a choice we all now face: Do we exploit the passions laid bare by this race, make deeper tears in the fabric that holds us together? Or do we look for common ground, and reasons to work together?

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR

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