Nine years ago as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele rolled into Wichita to help launch the career of a fledgling congressional candidate named Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo went on to win that election and serve 3½ terms in Congress, before joining the Trump administration as CIA director and later getting promoted to secretary of state.
Steele, now best known as a political analyst on the MSNBC network show Morning Joe, is slated to return to Wichita on Nov. 19 when he’ll be one of the featured speakers at the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting and dinner.
In an interview with The Eagle, Steele referred to Pompeo as “my man,” and said he caught up with him most recently at an event about a month ago.
“I was very touched,” Steele said. “He did a speech . . . and afterwards, when he was leaving, he came off the stage and he came up to me and we shook hands and gave each other a hug. And I wished him well and he looked at me and said ‘We’ve come a long way,’ and I said ‘Yes, we have.’”
Steele said Pompeo “has done all right for himself since the last time we were rolling through Kansas. He’s been particularly adept at staying in the president’s ear . . . not that the president agrees with him or takes all of his advice.”
It’s a tough job being the nation’s top diplomat while serving a president who can be pretty undiplomatic, Steele said.
Pompeo “represents the conflict and contradiction at times in trying to actually do the nation’s business in a manner that is appropriate and hopefully successful, but at the same time trying not to, you know, be in the Twitter crosshairs of the president.”
And while Pompeo has repeatedly said he’s focused on his current job and not on running for Kansas’ open seat in the Senate, Steele said he wouldn’t be surprised “if he decided to step down from his current role in leadership and pursue something closer to the people of Kansas.”
At the Chamber event, Steele will share the stage with Paul Begala, a CNN analyst and former top political advisor to President Clinton, for a discussion of the state of politics in the country.
But if you’re expecting a partisan shouting match, prepare to be disappointed. The idea is to have a rational and respectful discussion of our political differences, Steele said.
He said he sees the current political culture in America as “distressed to the point of fracture.”
“That’s my concern and I know it’s the concern of a lot of my friends on the Democratic side as well; this notion by Democrats that Republicans want to destroy communities of color and families and this notion . . . by Republicans that Democrats want to take away our ability to safeguard our freedoms, etc, ect,” he said
“That creates a great deal of stress on the body politic,” he added. “Ultimately, if that is not appropriately checked and appropriately dealt with, it will lead to fractures and we won’t be the first nation to suffer from that. Great empires, great nations, do fall under their own weight if the people do not rally to the appropriate cause.”
As RNC chairman from 2009 to 2011, Steele had a front-row seat as the parties increasingly divided themselves into warring camps.
He said what began as the Tea Party movement of 2009 and 2010 morphed into something more divisive around 2012.
“Upholding the Constitution and adhering to its principles began to take a back seat to raw anger,” he said. “That was tough to watch and it’s tough to really get a handle on, particularly if the leadership itself is not consistent and coherent in dealing with it.”
He said both President Trump and President Obama were symptomatic of the problems in contemporary politics.
“I think those two political figures sort of manifest that yin and yang, that sense of hope and optimism that Obama talked about but was not realized, and this sense of isolationist tribalism and sort of ‘make America great again’ idea that romanticizes about a time that never really existed,” he said. “That is sort of stirring the particular soup that we find ourselves in right now.”
He said social media fans the fire of divisiveness.
“It’s poisonous,” he said. “It is fraught with the seeds of the weeds.”
Social media exposes “the sort of underbelly of culture where people hide behind made-up names and identities to slay their fellow Americans,” he said. “I don’t think that was what it was intended to do, but that’s what it’s become. So it has played an enornmous role in dumbing down our conversation.”
Steele said he has confronted people many times, asking if they’d actually read something they retweeted, Their response was “I didn’t have to.”
“So we’ve become a culture of headlines and that’s what makes what the president does and the way he communicates so successful, because you don’t have to get into the substance,” he said. “You dote over the headline, you get fired up when you see the word ‘attack,’ or ‘deep state,’ or ‘Antifa,’ or whatever.
“And people respond without taking, literally, the five minutes to read what’s there, to digest it themselves whether this is propaganda . . . what it means and doesn’t mean. I think all of that contributes to the general decay and rot that we have in our ability to communicate with each other.”
Steele said someone in political office is eventually going to have to step up and risk their position to right the political system, but “I just don’t see anybody willing to make the sacrifice right now.”
“Are you afraid to lose a seat? Are you afraid of a tweet? Then you shouldn’t be in this game as far as I’m concerned, but that’s where we are,” he said. “I think what I see right now is a lot of leaders who have basically given up and have walked away from the fight as opposed to standing on firm ground and saying ‘This is not what the country’s about, this is not what we as a party believe or have fought for.”
He said he’s regularly asked why he’s still a Republican.
“I’ve kind of concluded I’m a little bit like a Motel 6,” he said. “You know, somebody’s got to keep the lights on.”
The annual meeting will be held Nov. 19 at the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center. It will start at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6:15 and the program at 7.
The general public is welcome and tickets are available at www.wichitachamber.org, for the program only or with the dinner included.
The dinner and program is $115 with discounts for students and military. Admission to the program only is $55.
For more information, call the Chamber office at 316-265-7771.