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Talking Trump: Q&A with local supporters of our new president

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In his first eight days in office as our most unconventional president, Donald Trump has signed executive orders to undo regulations governing the controversial Affordable Care Act, set in motion construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact while calling for the North American Free Trade Agreement to be renegotiated, perhaps junked. He has continued warring with the press over the size of his inaugural crowd compared to Barack Obama’s and what he claims (and many state and federal officials vigorously deny) is widespread voter fraud. He claims this is why he lost the popular vote in the election by nearly 3 million votes. By week’s end his order regarding refugees from parts of the Middle East had sparked Muslim vows of retribution.

On Tuesday, Trib opinion editor Bill Whitaker sat down with five Waco-area residents who voted for Trump. Three in the past year have written letters published in the Trib supporting Trump; a fourth penned a column in support of him. In a free-wheeling conversation that ran more than an hour, they discussed what they expect of a Trump administration; how they reassure family and friends nervous about the impulsive president and his unguarded remarks and tweets; and just how the press and public are to hold Trump accountable. This last question derives from Trump apologists who say his comments should be taken not literally, only seriously, and that one should pay more attention to deeds, not words.

Offering their insights in this spirited conversation: Lester H. Beaird, 75, of Lacy Lakeview, retired from a career in prison administration, including the Texas Department of Corrections; Lloyd Coffman, 59, of Hewitt, a retired Air Force master sergeant who worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is a Military Order of the Purple Heart national service officer and president of the McLennan County Veterans Association; businessman and onetime Republican congressional candidate Jack Burgess, 79, of Waco; Joseph Bays, 84, a Navy veteran (nuclear technician) and onetime lawman in Seattle who now lives in West; and Walter Seeger, 82, of Waco, retired after many years at the cooling and plumbing company Lochridge Priest. Seeger grew up in Nazi Germany.

Q    First, what specifically do each of you expect of a Trump administration? What will determine in your mind whether this administration is a success?

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Walter Seeger, raised in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s reign in the 1930s, stresses the importance of respecting not only the new American president but the political dynamics and constitutional system that ensure the rights of all Americans.

Walter Seeger    There are at least four issues this nation has to face up to. Internal security, immigration, health and law enforcement. These things must be addressed. They’re almost equally important. And, of course, it’s a matter of opinion as to what we think is most important. But we better get some action on this.

Q    Yes, but what specifically do you want to see? The last administration also took action on priorities. You might not agree with them, but, well, let’s take immigration. What do you want to see done regarding immigration?

Seeger    Well, for one thing, just common sense. We need to make sure we have controlled immigration. We have to identify people, we have to know who we send out and, most of all, we need to make sure these people actually have the intention to assimilate, which is not the case right now.

Q    How would you do this?

Seeger    Assimilate?

Q    No — and actually most Mexican migration is headed out of the United States now. But given that this has been a problem in the past and could be again, what do we need to do in immigration reform? Do we need to build that wall?

Seeger    We need to understand that sending a few million people out is not going to solve this problem. For instance, [wife] Jeanne and I — our house burned up and over the last 10 years we did various things to [fix] it. And who did the work? Mexican nationals. Now for us to send people out who have established jobs and are willing to raise families here and educate those families here, why would we want to send them home? Now, they may not be identified, so an essential part of this is we have to accept identification [as part of any immigration reform plan].

Q    Anything else specific you want to see?

Seeger    Become more lawful. Fight and oppose lawlessness. We have demoralized our security system, our police system.

Q    How? Tougher sentencing — an issue where some Republicans disagree with the next attorney general, Jeff Sessions?

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Air Force veteran Lloyd Coffman, who has spent much of his post-military career working to benefit veterans, says Americans owe it to the political system to give President Trump a fair chance to improve the country: “If you don’t like him, we can kick him out. And remember that if you don’t like what he’s done, we can undo it.”

Lloyd Coffman    I would just enforce the laws on the books. And to say that Trump is going to just run people out of this country is ludicrous and ridiculous. Just enforce the laws that you have. There are plenty of laws now, they’re just not being enforced. Why? I don’t know. But I do know that I can look at highway construction going on around this nation and I can tell who’s building it. [Immigrants.] And thank God they’re here. This may sound bad, but you’re not going to get the common white boy sitting at home in Hewitt to get out there and work his ass off on that damn hot road all day long. And I thank God that they’re here. But enforce the laws. If they’re here, rubber-stamp [vet and legally certify these immigrants] and move on.

Q    Joseph, when you look at the Trump administration, what’s one thing you want to see done?

Joseph Bays    I would like to see the pipelines completed.

Q    Why is that important to you?

Bays    Well, that’s important because we are capable of being energy-independent and we should be and hopefully Trump will make that happen.

Q    Anything else?

Bays    Well, I’d like to see immigration control.

Lester Beaird    I have to answer your question in a different way. What I would like to see Trump do is deliver the best he can on his campaign promises. He got elected because he’s not a politician. The anti-politician attitude in this country keeps going higher and higher and, if he does his level best to deliver on his campaign promises, we’re going to see an improvement in the economy.

Q    But he made hundreds of campaign promises. I concede all politicians do this, but is there anything specific you want to see?

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Lacy Lakeview resident Lester H. Beaird (right) believes the economy will work for all because of a president who is a “non-politician, someone who has been successful as a businessman making some sensible businessman decisions about how this government runs.” To his right: veteran and former lawman Joseph Bays of West.

Beaird    I’m not talking about specifics like, “I saved 500 jobs here.” I’m talking about the general idea of the economy, lowering the corporate tax and doing some of those things that can bring some of that money back from other places and get some jobs going. I like the idea of infrastructure. I don’t like the idea of going deep, deep, deep, deep into debt about it. There is a thought — and I don’t know if I buy into it entirely — that some of that money [from corporate profits held offshore] that is repatriated and comes back will take care of all that. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know who in the world would even want to be a president of the United States. The job to me seems like a guy that’s on a high wire riding a unicycle and blindfolded, juggling, and people are throwing up chainsaws and bowling balls to him that don’t like him. [Laughter.] How in the hell can you be a success at everything? You can’t. Nobody can. And we haven’t had a president that was totally good.

Q    Well, they all upset us sooner or later.

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Longtime resident and businessman Jack Burgess, who sought to unseat Democratic Congressman William Poage in 1976, says he originally backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president. Of Trump, he says, “what I want to see him do is what I had hoped Obama would do and that’s bring our country together, especially racially.”

Jack Burgess    I think he’s going to do the things these gentlemen are talking about — the big promises. But what I want to see him do is what I had hoped Obama would do and that’s bring our country together, especially racially. He can do this if he really goes to work on those inner cities and, as I’ve written to you [privately], if we can do a better job of educating our minorities.

Q    That’s a noble cause, Jack. I ask all of you then: President-elect Trump got into it with civil rights icon John Lewis. You can argue whether Congressman Lewis was right to say Trump is an illegitimate president, but it was surely his right as an American to say so. And it’s Trump’s right to respond. So Martin Luther King III goes down to Trump Plaza at Trump’s request, calms things down, Mr. King comes out later and says very nice things about the president-elect. And shortly thereafter Trump goes after Lewis again, aggravating matters. Explain the logic in how all this helps racial relations.

Burgess    It’s not. It’s not. I don’t know why the man has to defend himself on every minor little thing.

Q    Does he need to put his Twitter down?

Burgess    He sure does.

Q    Does everybody agree with that?

Coffman    I don’t mind the Twitter. I do mind the rhetoric on his Twitter. If the Twitter meant something, then it wouldn’t bother me. But every now and then I’ll see a Twitter come out and I’ll go, “Why doesn’t he just close his mouth?” He sounds so much better when he does [exercise restraint and tact]. He’s a smart man, he ain’t stupid, but, well, I don’t know if someone’s running his Twitter for him, but it’s ridiculous.

Beaird    I can see Twitter being anathema to the news print people — TV too — but I’m impressed there is a way for him to keep me and everybody else in the general public attuned to what’s going on. Granted, his version may be slanted and biased sometimes. Everybody’s is. We don’t have politicians who have a very good ear about what their voting public put them into office to do. And that Twitter is one of the most direct ways to get me to pick up the phone and call my legislator and say: “Hey, what about this? What are you going to do?”

Q    I’ll give you that much. He certainly killed off — well, he delayed — that Republican congressional move to shut down the House ethics office a couple of weeks ago.

Beaird    Yes, that was a good thing. And not all of his battles are going to be with the Democrats.

Q    This past week we had this strange situation where the National Park Service released an aerial picture of the Trump inaugural crowd. Someone compared it with the Obama 2009 inauguration crowd, which appeared lots bigger. So more people went to Obama’s than Trump’s and he tweets all about its being faked or wrong. I wanted to call this president and say, “Why on earth are you doing this?”

Coffman    I don’t care that there’s more people [at Obama’s inauguration]. Why are you [President Trump] bringing up issues that have nothing to do with nothing?

Q    Can anyone defend this sort of behavior?

Beaird    Probably his rationale is: “If somebody puts out something I believe may not be factual — and newspaper and TV people do that sometimes — I’m going to contest it because I want to stop it from gaining traction because over a period of time these lies become believed.”

Q    But, Lester, this involved photographic evidence.

Beaird    Uh, do we know if the photographic evidence is factual and actual and real?

Q    So you’re suggesting that the National Park Service doctored it?

Beaird    Well, it may not have been at the same time — I’ve seen other pictures of Trump in the foreground, talking to a group of folks that extends way back there.

Seeger    We’re not going to change Trump. We have to sort of bend with the punches. We need to be learning how to figure out what does not even pertain to our wellbeing, you know. We just have to recognize what really affects us and what doesn’t.

Burgess    I think if he keeps using his Tweeter, he’s going to wear his welcome out.

Q    Well, over time he could undermine his credibility. But, Lloyd, you sound like you deal with some realities. What’s one thing at the end of four years you want done?

Coffman    I’m not the smartest man in the room, I’ll tell you that much. But immigration has got to be one of the biggest ones. What I’d like to see him do is get rid of sanctuary cities. There are laws on the books for these things and, if police or anybody else in a city is ignoring those laws, that’s a problem. Now there are a lot of ways you can attack this. You can go to Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco — your funding just got cut off. Instead of getting, say, $13 million a year, we’re going to hold it back. If somebody’s here illegally and you know they’re here illegally and you just let them walk — and, you know, you get these extreme cases where they go out there and kill somebody — that’s when it gets bad. But, well, there’s a lot of [illegal immigrant] folks out there who are hard-working too. I don’t know what that balance is. I don’t know the best way to attack that. Do you pick up everybody? You can’t. But there are ways to force people [city officials] to do what you’re supposed to do. That’s your job, that’s your mandate. And if you’re not going to do your job, then go find another one.

Q    So immigration is a big problem in this country?

Coffman    I don’t think it’s as big as we make it out to be, but when you got people afraid they may get deported, it becomes a big problem.

Q    Thank you, Lloyd. Now, Joseph, you draw the card on starting this next question. There is a lot of anxiety and fear in our neighborhoods and across this nation. Trump is a different kind of president. There may be things you like about him and things that really scare others. For me, that’s leaving NATO. I mean, I learned from my history books how it staved off World War III. Anyway, how will you reassure me about Mr. Trump, Joseph?

Bays    Well, leaving NATO is, I think, a great idea.

Q    Really.

Bays    Yeah, because I think NATO’s time has come and gone. I think Trump has the right idea.

Q    Why has NATO’s time come and gone?

Bays    Well, the old Soviet Union has dissolved into a bunch of independent countries and what’s his name is trying to [bring] back the USSR.

Q    So wouldn’t that actually be a good excuse to keep NATO?

Bays    Well, no, I think NATO is useless.

Q    Wow. OK. But you were going to tell me something that would reassure me about President Trump and you sure didn’t do that. [Room erupts in laughter.]

Bays    Well, I think he’s going to put the missile system in Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic as it’s now called — the anti-missile missiles. I think the Israelis called it the Iron Dome.

Q    Well, Lester, I’m not sure Joseph got me settled, but what do you tell doubting friends? You saw Hugh Hewitt’s column in our Sunday paper where he tries to reassure friends who are moderate Republicans but worry about Trump. Hewitt is a very conservative radio host.

Beaird    I applaud the absolute absence of political-correctness junk that so many politicians use. I like the fact he tells it like it is, right or wrong. And sometimes he’s wrong obviously. I try to tell folks that a little less hidden agenda from him [is good], that what you see is what you get. If you give him time to get some economic things tweaked, you’re going to see that things get better. I usually ask, “Do you honestly feel you’re better off now than eight, 12, 16 years ago?” Most people don’t. “Do you want your taxes more reasonable rather than being so complex that you have to hire a CPA to do it? Do you want to be able to do your taxes? Do you want your unemployed kids to maybe have a chance to get a job?” Just give it a little bit of time. That’s the first thing. I don’t know what you do about guys like the one who wrote the letter you had in the paper the other day that called all the people who live in the country a bunch of naïve idiots [for voting for Trump] and how, after they elected Trump, they were buying [non-stink] underwear they saw advertised on TV because they were too naïve to understand that — I didn’t like that letter and if I hadn’t been too busy I would’ve written one. [Room erupts into laughter.]

Q    Well, you got it off your chest just now. So you believe these things you’re saying will reassure friends and neighbors?

Beaird    I have some of those folks, yes. You know, I think Trump got himself some votes by going into the inner cities and saying, “What the hell do you have to lose? Try me. Let’s try a different direction.”

Q    Jack, how about you? What are you going to do to reassure me? And you and I probably vote more alike than the rest of these folks.

Burgess    Well, I did not support Trump in the primary election, but look at his family and how he has run his business and how his family loves him and he loves those kids. Those kids have to be brilliant, but they like him. He could not be the evil person people [believe] who are making all this noise. And he could not have built his business without working through an awful lot of very talented people. Look who he’s picked for his Cabinet. Now there may be a few more military people than some folks want.

Q    I’ve heard good things about “Mad Dog” Mattis.

Burgess    He’s picked people who are going to talk back to him. I think he’s going to do a great job and I really — and I’m the liberal here — but I really do think he’s going to make an effort to help downtown Detroit and some of these other places. My understanding is he’s the type of guy who, as he’s going around these construction sites, has as good a time talking to somebody with a jackhammer as he does the superintendent. I think he’ll treat our country that way.

Q    Excellent. Lloyd?

Coffman    Well, concerning NATO, it’s like any bloc sitting out there. If you’re not all on board, what’s the purpose of having it? If I’m not going to get the backing from NATO, then go ahead and get me out. Everybody thought the United Nations was a great idea. I’m not going to argue whether it is or isn’t, but there was a cry back when to get out of the United Nations. It was a problem for the United States.

Beaird    And another big problem was parity in who paid for what [among NATO member countries].

Q    Good point. Of course, you do recall that, in NATO’s long history, the only nation to call upon it for help was the United States.

Coffman    Yeah, but that’s what we need. With terrorism the way it is all over the world, if you can’t team up, you’re fighting individually. We should be helping each other. We should be helping England, France, Spain, whatever. But we’ve got to get NATO together. If we’re not — well, the United States should not send 10,000 troops to Iraq and England send five. That’s ridiculous. Either fight this fight or get out of it. Don’t send young men to die if we’re not going to let them win. If you’re not going to let them win, don’t even go. If it were up to me — and this is the scary part, pardon me for saying this — I’d cut the military loose. Do whatever you got to do, but end this thing. We’ve been in this since 1990 and I’m tired of it. Let’s take this fight to them and let’s get this damn thing over with.

Q    Good point. But tell me something reassuring you’ve said to family or friends who didn’t see things the way you did this election.

Coffman    Oh, my God, you have no idea.

Q    How do you talk to them and say, “Hey, listen, this is going to be a good deal for our nation.”

Coffman    Basically just that. I’m sure everybody has said the same thing. Just give it a chance. The man may be an idiot. I don’t know. But he’s not a politician, he is a millionaire and everybody he’s putting in there [Cabinet posts] seems to be millionaires. These guys know how to run businesses. Give him a chance. Give it a couple of years. You don’t like him? Kick him out. I don’t care. Just give it a chance. I’m sure you’ve all seen, they’re calling for his impeachment. He’s only been in office two days! They were calling for his impeachment even before he became president! Just give him a chance. That’s all I ask.

Q    Walter, you know that a lot of things said about Trump involve his being an autocrat, an authoritarian in the mold of Adolf Hitler. You grew up in Nazi Germany. How do you respond when people say, “Well, Walter, you of all people ought to recognize these tendencies.”

Seeger    Let’s start with Trump. He’s dynamic, he’s going to do something — there’s no question — and he proved that on his first day. And if at the end of the day he can look back and has done something — now that something is going to be the question. Whatever direction we go, this country needs to be supportive of what is right and we need to be together on this thing.

Q    A liberal friend of mine is reading this book on how Hitler assumed tyrannical power and he quotes what he sees as parallels with what Trump is doing now.

Seeger    America has a system that will not fail. It will only fail when it breaks down within itself. We will stand a chance of going the wrong direction if we’re not united because, after all, [consider] this congressman saying [Trump] is an illegitimate president. That’s a bunch of nonsense, but it was everybody. We need to accept the system that has worked for 200 years and remember the safeguards here and there [constitutional checks and balances] that will keep us from going overboard.

Coffman    You bring up a great point: You are what you show yourself to be. And he is a dynamic man. But how many Democrats said they weren’t going to the inauguration? What message were they sending? And think of Madonna: “I want to blow up the White House.”

Beaird    It’s a federal crime.

Coffman    It should be. If I said it or you said it, we’d be in jail. Kids and college kids were there listening to that idol of theirs saying stuff like that. What does that tell them? You had six women dress up like vaginas and march. There were kids down there. If we dressed up as — well, what do you think they’d do to us? By doing this, all you’re doing is generating more hate. That’s all you’re doing. And the Democrats — I think that’s one reason they lost the election. They’re getting further away from [the political] center. If we get too far to the right, we’re going to pay for it. If you get too far to the left, you’re going to pay for it. There’s a balance in there. When Obama became president, did I like it? No. Same way with Slick Willie. I didn’t like him, either, though he did great for the country. The country prospered under him, monetarily speaking and jobs. But give this man a chance. But the rhetoric we’re hearing — and from both sides, no doubt — it’s pulling America apart.

Q    It’s been said by people who support Trump that the press and the public shouldn’t take what he says literally, only seriously. I ask you now: How is the press or a skeptical public supposed to hold this new president accountable when we’re not supposed to trust what he says but what he might possibly mean?

Beaird    I don’t know that I’ve got a good answer for that. You see talking heads on TV criticizing the man because of the way his tie is tied and his coat’s not buttoned.

Q    President Obama said, in touting health-care legislation, that if you liked your doctor, you could keep him under the Democrats’ health-insurance plan. The press and public held him accountable for his words. And what he said was not true, judging by what many Americans claim. This is a real example I’m giving you. Why should I not hold President Trump to the same standard? A week ago he said there was going to be health-care insurance for everybody.

Beaird    Well, that’s a point there. He said there would be health care [insurance] for everybody. Is there going to be? No. Can it happen? Probably not. Is there going to be resistance from Republicans as well as Democrats? Yes. But I think people can look at his intent and his efforts to do what he said he wanted to do and judge him on the basis of that.

Coffman    I don’t think there’s any separation there. If you make a statement like, “I’m going to redo health care and we’re going to get health care for everyone out there,” that’s a pretty bold move and it’s probably not going to happen as soon as you said it. And the press is going to hold your feet to the fire.

Q    So should we not hold the president accountable?

Coffman    No, you should hold his feet to the fire. He’s the president. He answers to us. I don’t care whether it’s the media or anybody sitting out there, he answers to us, just like any congressman we elect. I’m not smart enough to figure out health care for 300 million people. But, yeah, anytime the commander in chief opens his mouth, he better think before he says it or he’s going to look like an idiot.

Q    Is there one thing you would say people need to keep in mind as we begin a Trump administration? I’m thinking of people who are scared as well as those who are excited and hopeful.

Coffman    Let’s give him a chance. If you don’t like him, we can kick him out. And remember that if you don’t like what he’s done, we can undo it.

Beaird    Most of my life, I didn’t pay too much attention to what politicians did. I probably voted against more presidential candidates than I ever did for them. I am enthused about a non-politician, someone who has been successful as a businessman making some sensible businessman decisions about how this government runs. Our bureaucracy is so bloated and, frankly, so insane in a lot of things that it does that no one man can keep up with what it does. I’m enthused about the caliber of people that he has nominated for key posts in his administration. I think he can probably get some things done. I know he’s going to try. Some of these other pure politicians I see go into office seem more interested in getting all their ducks lined up for the next time so they can get re-elected.

Seeger    This nation has existed for 200 years. There is a reason for it. We have been blessed with elements and essentials that gave us all the opportunities and people in our past have taken those opportunities. We are Americans. We need to honor the system, honor the people no matter where they are or how they go and we need to know we are still the best nation in the world. Go somewhere else and see what’s going on. Anybody ridiculing or belittling what we have here — even what you and I are doing here now — we’re trying to focus on the common denominator. We can’t start off being ridiculous or negative about it. We need to be looking up and giving this guy a chance and judge him by what he can do for Americans. I was in World War II. In 1945 I was 11. The American troops came through our town. We heard them coming 40 miles away, cannons, tanks and all that. The American troops came in and the way they behaved was 180 degrees from what happened in east Germany [involving Russian troops’ handling of German civilians]. People were coming our way because they wanted to get away from the Russians. What happened was indescribable. But the American soldiers among us, the children, they distributed prayer books, little booklets with Bible stories. They were God-led people and they behaved accordingly. For them to bring religious literature among us left a lifelong mark on us.

Q    Jack, what would you add?

Burgess    We’re all Americans.

Q    Yes, but in regard to what we need to keep in mind.

Burgess    We survived Jimmy Carter. [Laughter erupts.]

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.