STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How much has the world changed in 40 years? We posed that question as MORNING EDITION marks its first 40 years of broadcasts. We're celebrating all week by looking back. And today - politics. Here to walk us through four decades of political history are NPR White House reporter Tamara Keith, who is exactly 40. Hi there, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
INSKEEP: And senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, who is slightly over 40. Hi there, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: That is correct.
INSKEEP: The first broadcast of MORNING EDITION in 1979 - November 1979 - had a brief mention of a story unfolding overseas that would dramatically shape American politics.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The State Department says it has gotten what it calls indications from the Iranian government that there will be help in negotiating the release of at least 60 Americans being held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A spokesman...
INSKEEP: These hostages were seized the day before MORNING EDITION went on the air, Ron Elving. How were things different afterward?
ELVING: It blew up the politics of 1980 before 1980 had even begun. Jimmy Carter was president, and Ronald Reagan posed the general proposition that those hostages had been taken in Tehran because the United States had been too weak on the world front. Carter was badly defeated in November, and the hostages were released on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
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WARREN BURGER: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear...
RONALD REAGAN: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear...
INSKEEP: That specific story still looms over our politics today because the United States continues to have conflicts with Iran, among other things.
ELVING: And even this week you can hear people marching in the streets of Tehran chanting death to America because they're celebrating the 40th anniversary of the taking of those hostages.
INSKEEP: Let's go on to an event that Tamara is old enough to remember. In fact, all American adults would remember at this moment. And that was 9/11, the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a few days later that President George W. Bush stood amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York City holding a bullhorn. And one of the people listening as he spoke said, I can't hear you.
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GEORGE W BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people...
BUSH: ...Who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
KEITH: It is an event that has led to a war on terror that is continuing to this day. You have U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria.
INSKEEP: And you have succeeding members of Congress arguing with succeeding presidents about whether the presidents even have the authority to continue this war.
KEITH: Because the authorization of the use of military force that was approved by Congress after 9/11 is the same one that President Trump is using today, that President Obama used before him. Congress, in a way, sort of ceded its authority to the president, and succeeding presidents have used that same authorization.
INSKEEP: You know, Ron Elving, I'm thinking that if, in 1979, someone had walked up to you and said NAFTA, you would have had no idea what they were talking about because that acronym did not exist. The North American Free Trade Agreement did not exist.
ELVING: No, I think I would have thought it was some kind of mentholated thing you rubbed on a sore elbow.
INSKEEP: Give yourself a little NAFTA after a hard tennis match. But in reality, it is something that has, again, overshadowed our politics for many years, since the 1990s when it was approved.
ELVING: It was thought of as a relatively dull story by a lot of people at the time. And we were trying to make it possible to take down the trade barriers between our respective countries. There were people who were opposed to it at the time, but trade wars are what we do these days in the place of what we used to call wars. Right now we have a trade war with China. We have the Brits trying to figure out how to Brexit, how to get out of the European Union. That has divided their country as much as anything has divided this country.
INSKEEP: One more development - and that is the change in women's rights and women's roles in the workplace, Tamara Keith.
KEITH: Well - and in particular, women in Congress. So if you go back to 1979, when this program started, there were 20 women in Congress. Today there are more than 120 women in Congress. Now, I talked to Linda Wertheimer, who covered Congress back when this show started, about this change.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: The power of the place tends to not change very much. But I think the presence of women has changed the product that the Congress produces. Women have more rights now. This - legislation has been passed that women have supported and women have pushed. You know, that's a big difference.
KEITH: And you have a woman who is the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, which is something that would have been pretty hard to imagine when there were only 20 women in Congress...
INSKEEP: Yeah. It would've...
KEITH: ...Forty years ago.
INSKEEP: ...Been a different job for you to be doing if there were virtually no women in power as you were covering them as a reporter, I suppose.
KEITH: Right. And Linda describes being the only woman at the press table. And I will say, there are times when the press corps - you know, we fly on Air Force One, this small group of reporters - and there have - was a moment where we looked around and thought - wait; there are no men (laughter).
ELVING: There are no boys on the bus.
INSKEEP: There's another change, though, over the last 40 years - the degree of partisanship in this country.
ELVING: There used to be more conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans. Now there are scarcely even any moderates in either party. Everyone seems to have gone to their respective poles. We call it polarization in political science.
ELVING: And that lives in Congress and animates the daily discussions there to the point where it's really made it almost impossible for Congress to work the way it used to do, the cooperative nature of the way Congress used to get things done.
KEITH: You know, it used to be that members of Congress and their families could socialize and - you know, like, you fight it out on the floor, and then you leave and go to a soccer game with your family. Now it's not cool to be in Washington, and so - particularly with the rise of the Tea Party. Then it became cool for members of Congress to sleep in their offices and not have any of this sort of social fabric that existed before.
INSKEEP: And there's an event that our colleague Linda Wertheimer talks about that happened along the way of these 40 years in the 1990s - a particular election of a particular speaker of the House.
WERTHEIMER: Newt Gingrich was elected, and he brought war to the Congress. And I think that changed a lot of things. Congress is a sort of a hotbed of nastiness these days.
ELVING: I don't think it's too strong to say that there is a connection from Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump to bringing a certain kind of energy into Congress that blew up this sense that everyone kind of cooperated and that there was a Washington way of doing things. And they expressed themselves through Gingrich, through the Tea Party and, ultimately, through President Trump.
INSKEEP: We could talk about so many more issues, and we will be this week as we mark MORNING EDITION's 40th anniversary. Thanks very much, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.
KEITH: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And NPR Washington desk senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve.
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