11/19/09 -- Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker was interviewed about his book on Obama's first year in the White House on Michael Krasny's "Forum" at KQED.
Michael Krasny: Hendrik Hertzberg is the author of a new book on the last presidential campaign and the prospect for the future -- "¡Obamanos!: The Birth of a New Political Era." We'll talk with him about a range of issues as we focus on his book and on today's politics... Hendrik Hertzberg took the title of his newest book, "¡Obamanos!", from a campaign poster he saw on a dusty road not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He describes the book as "simply a real time contemporaneous record of one person's observations, cogitations, and indignations over the quadrennial cycle that ended with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States." The author of "Politics," and a staff writer and editor at the New Yorker since 1992, Hertzberg is also a former naval officer, a Newsweek reporter, and served twice as editor of the New Republic and as President Jimmy Carter's chief speech writer.
MK: ... Welcome! Good to have you here!
Hendrik Hertzberg: Wonderful to be here!
MK: ... This is an election, you point out, that has special magic to it. Your 15th election, as you were counting! And a once in a lifetime election, as you see it as well.
HH: Yes, I did see that -- to my surprise. It did develop into that -- into a once-in-a-lifetime. I try, in the introduction to the book, to figure out why I got so emotionally wrapped up in this one. After all, I'd been closer to the center of at least one other election -- the 1980 Jimmy Carter election when I was on Carter's campaign plane. But I think a lot of people had that experience. A lot of people had the experience of getting pulled into this one more than they had any other, doing things they never expected to do. Sending checks and taking trips to battleground states and stuff like that.
MK: Where are they all now! That's the question that's hovering over the attempts to get health care through and all the rest of the Obama administration's agenda at this point.
HH: Well, I guess the administration has not had as much luck as it had hoped to have in activating that volunteer base -- this enormous online base that they assembled during the campaign. But it's just a different thing now. The campaign had a particular end goal. It was tightly focused. It had a shape. The fights that the President is involved in now -- especially the health care fight -- doesn't lend itself as readily to that sort of direct action. Yes, they want to get people to write their representatives. But the only representatives that really count are a handful of senators from contested areas -- or conservative areas. So it doesn't much matter what 99% of the public does. The polls count for something. But it's not as if a 5-point gain in support for the health care plan in the polls would be a decisive factor. The decisive factor is going to be the senators.
MK: But it seems as if, coming out of the gate, there was less of an attempt to rally the troops or to galvanize things, at least where health care was concerned. In fact, it was almost tacitly admitted that perhaps they could have gotten things started much sooner rather than turn things over to the House of Representatives or the Senate.
HH: Well, against the background of what happened in 1992 when the exact opposite tack was taken and there the Clinton administration put together its own plan -- which was just as enormous and full of detail as the ones that have been coming out of the House and Senate. And that backfired. You can argue, I guess, that Obama went to the other extreme. But I think that the results so far show that he made the right call. The Clinton plan got killed dead. The Clinton plan was much more vulnerable to the crazy attacks launched against it than this plan is to the crazy attacks being launched. Because members of Congress are complicit in designing this one. They have skin in the game where they didn't -- at least not enough -- in the Clinton fight. So I think he made the right call on that.
MK: I want to talk with you, in fact, about Senator Reid's putting forward a program just yesterday about health care, but let me go back to your book -- because there's so much to draw from this. What you take us back to is that speech that Obama delivered which was an extraordinary speech -- you compare it to Mario Cuomo's speech in San Francisco. Jazz vs. opera or something along those lines! A fine metaphor! But it did really present Barack Obama for the first time launched as a candidate and reminded many of us of an idea that was attached to Julian Bond at one time: "This is a man for the future." That carried for quite a while. There was a great deal of skepticism that he could actually take center stage as he did, which was extraordinary and had a lot to do in your judgment with his temperament -- and all the good organizing. But you were drawn to the calm.
HH: Yes, the temperament at the eye of the storm. That really, really built during the campaign. At crucial moments -- there were many points during the campaign when his candidacy could have simply collapsed -- his temperament came to the rescue. He managed to stand back from the 24/7 cable TV news hysteria and think his way to the next step and look over the horizon. And while all around him were tearing their hair out, he was focused and thinking and calm and then pulled himself out and emerged stronger from each of these controversies than he'd been going into it.
MK: You also made a fascinating analogy -- and it was made before, certainly -- in a way that I found quite fascinating: the cool aristocratic demeanor of John F. Kennedy. You even compare his book to "Profiles in Courage." Though I think it's a question of who was helped more. There are some of these charges now whether Obama had Bill Ayres as his ghost-writer coming from the Right.
HH: That's an example of utter insanity, complete..
MK: As insane as saying he was born in Kenya?
HH: Yes, it is. It's just as insane as that. Or maybe not quite because born-in-Kenya paranoid scenario requires somebody having peered so far into the future that they would place a birth notice in a Honolulu newspaper! So it's not quite as insane as that! But it's just a random lie, a random, absurd lie.
MK: What I found fascinating, though, in the analogy to Kennedy was that Obama was not what most Americans perceived as "black" in the way Kennedy was not what most Americans perceived as "Catholic," in terms of their fears or the dangers associated with that.
HH: That's right. Kennedy was an Irish Catholic, but his whole style and demeanor was the reverse of the usual stereotypes about a kind of red-faced parish priest combined with hard drinking or a New York cop. All the stereotypes of the machine Irish pol. Kennedy was elegant. He was secular; he was a Harvard man; he liked to sail boats rather than play bowls. He was the reverse of that...
MK: Windsurf, as you point out, was toxic for John Kerry.
HH: And I think that was Kerry's fault in a sense because Kerry was a kind of Kennedy redux. He ran away from what was natural to him. It seems to me that he would have been much better off saying, "Okay, let's see who can parasail better, me or George W. Bush. Or for that matter, let's see who can fly a plane better." Did you know that John Kerry was a pilot who had logged many more thousands of hours in the air than George W. Bush did? Nobody knew that! For some reason it wasn't brought out. The Kerry campaign didn't bring it out just as -- going back further -- the McGovern campaign in 1972 just left aside the fact that McGovern was a war hero and a bomber pilot.
MK: We talked about that with Senator McGovern and, in fact, talked just yesterday with James McManus, who wrote a couple of books on poker, and he was saying that, initially, President Obama was saying, "I'm a good poker player," but then he kind of backed away from that. You're not supposed to be upfront about your poker playing! Remember he went to Pennsylvania and bowled a game of 37? That didn't quite impress those who hang around bowling alleys!
HH: Well, he's lucky -- and his luck is absolutely preternatural, extraordinary -- but the three-point shot kind of wiped away all of the bowling problem.
MK: ...It's a new political era, although now we've got ... the movement from all of the idealism to governing. Obama now is facing a great deal of shellacking over the decision that he and Attorney General Holder made to have this trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- "KSM" -- and these other two terrorists in New York City! As opposed to putting them in a military tribunal.
HH: I'm from New York City and I'm not scared of having the trial in New York. And this trumped fear about having the trial in New York is of a piece with the fears -- irrational and nasty fears that have been trumped up -- over Guantanamo. These supposedly chest-thumping, pro-military senators and members of Congress tuck their tails between their legs and say, "Oh, no, no, no! We're terrified of having a terrorist from Guantanamo in a maximum security prison in our state!" Even if there were some risk to taking these prisoners to maximum security prisons in the US -- even if there were some risk -- this is a war, supposedly. That's what these people think it is. Aren't you supposed to take the odd risk in a war? Aren't our soldiers taking some risks? So it's a weird effusion of cowardice -- proud cowardice! It's as if these people are proud to be chicken!
MK: It's not only security concerns. Those were expressed, certainly, by Governor Patterson [New York]. Not only concerns about security but the fact that this is on "hallowed ground" and there's all this fear attached to it. This was coming from a Democrat. But also [concerns] that intelligence things will be revealed during the trial, that you're giving an opportunity to people that say they were mirandized or they were tortured or all kinds of things that could essentially create a hung jury or get them off.
HH: Yes. I don't know. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to torture them to begin with? That's the lesson of that. And I think that the Obama administration -- and Holder -- want to make a break with that whole approach and to have them tried by a military tribunal -- to deprive them of Constitutional rights and all that would just be a continuation of the thinking that led to torture. They're trying to restore the rule of law. They're trying to restore decency here. I think the danger is rather slim that he'll get off.
MK: What do you make of some of the criticism -- you followed the campaign -- lately? David Brooks had a column essentially writing about the indecisiveness of Obama, particularly in light of Afghanistan. He's an intellect; he's a man of calm. He's a man Brooks obviously has a good deal of respect and admiration for. But he doesn't have that ability to make a quick decision -- the black or white kinds of decisions that W made.
HH: I think that's wrong. I think that in the campaign, when his calm temperament would take over, he might take a day or two longer to make a decision. But when he did, it was clear and it worked. It certainly doesn't bother me in the slightest. And from what poll data tell us, it doesn't particularly bother most of the American people that he is looking at the Afghanistan issue from the ground up and he's taking time to do it. I don't really understand the reasoning that so values quickness of decision over rightness of decision.
MK: ... Maybe they've all been reading Malcolm Gladwell and they believe in "blink" or something along those lines?
HH: David Broder wrote a column saying that it's important that Obama make this decision quickly, whether it's the right decision or the wrong decision! That's sort of a self-refuting comment! Who does not prefer to take a little longer and make the right decision?
MK: Do you think some of this criticism of Obama is tied -- as the president you worked for, Jimmy Carter, seems to suggest -- to race as a factor? Do you see it that way?
HH: It's an underlying factor, I think. "Otherness" is an underlying factor. Race per se? Yeah, I think that plays a role. But I don't think it's simple racism. What Jimmy Carter did was a classic Michael Kinsley gaffe. He blurted out a truth. Carter's coming from the deep South. He's steeped in a culture where racism was historically pervasive and he called that one as he saw it. But that doesn't mean that the Limbaughs and Hannitys and Joe Wilsons of the world (well, maybe Joe Wilson!) are outright racists. It's an otherness. It's a sense of alienation from everything that Obama represents.
MK: Hawaii and Indonesia and Africa and all those things?
HH: This whole other way of being American. This whole other way of having American roots that Obama introduced the country to -- at least at the national level. It turned out that it resonated with a lot of people. I've got those kind of varied roots. I'm on the one side descended from Walt Whitman's great uncle and a bunch of people who came over in the 18th century, and on the other side from people from the [inaudible] settlement in Eastern Europe. There are so many Americans who are these crazy mixtures. And Obama came along and represented all that. It's another kind of American roots and it brought out a new kind of patriotism among people. I think it was one of the biggest factors in his emergence.
MK: You also have a pedigree going back to Norman Thomas, the party of your parents, although you say unequivocally, "I'm a Democrat; I'm a liberal. I've always been a Democrat and a liberal." Does that hurt your so-called political perspective in terms of readers saying, "Well, he has this bias"?
HH: I don't know. I think when I wrote for the New Republic for all those years, I was more overtly preaching to a choir. People who read the New Republic -- despite what some may say about it's apostases -- it's essentially a liberal audience. The New Yorker is mostly a liberal audience. But the New Yorker is not primarily a political magazine. It's at least as much a literary magazine. It has plenty of conservative readers. But I don't see much percentage in hiding the fact that if you think about public affairs over a long period of time, you're likely to end up with a set of beliefs. And those beliefs are something you apply to your analysis. I don't really see anything wrong with that. I don't think it harms the quality of the analysis unless the beliefs are crazy!
MK: I remember Jim Lehrer telling me, much to my surprise and slight shock, that he hadn't even registered in a political party because he didn't want to give the appearance of being biased, and so forth...
HH: I think that's a reasonable position for someone whose business is presenting the news. It can go too far. Maybe Jim carries it a little too far.
MK: No, he's right. It was in the interest of good citizenship and modeling for him to do that. But at one point ...
HH: He's probably registered as an Independent.
MK: I believe that's right. ... Getting back to President Carter for a moment, I did an interview with him which was unfortunately a bit contentious because I was asking him about some of the material that Alan Dershowitz had alleged. I don't necessarily want to get into that into that whole miasmic swamp with you! But what about these charges that he's anti-Semitic?
HH: That's ridiculous! It's absolutely ridiculous! It's a common... You can argue with the substance of what he says and thinks and recommends. You can't argue with the fact that he was among those primarily responsible for the biggest gain for Israeli security that's been made since the founding of the state of Israel. This is a man with a track record. The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has held all these years. It is a centerpiece. The tactic of accusing him of anti-semitism is despicable. It is inadmissable. Decent people should not engage in that sort of thing.
MK: Getting back to the campaign. Reverend Wright was going to be, according to just everybody observing -- including you -- perhaps a kind of potential Waterloo for would-be president at the time, Barack Obama. That turned out not to be the case in large part, again, because of a speech, really.
HH: Yes. Because of the way he responded to it. By all rights, that should have torpedoed his campaign. If it turns out you've been going for 20 years or whatever it was to a church whose pastor -- the pastor who performed your wedding -- gives a sermon saying, "Goddamn America!", that is not good news for a candidate for office. When the storm broke the Obama temperament took over. He absented himself from the crazy swirl around him. He sat down. He focused on making a speech that went beyond the immediate controversy and addressed in an extraordinarily sensitive and perceptive way the burden of race in American life. And he made a speech that rescued his campaign. He came out of it stronger than he'd gone in. Now, not everybody who was affected by that speech actually heard or read it. But those whose business it was -- the kind of "opinion leader' class whose business it is to read such things and pay attention to such things -- were deeply impressed. Everybody else kind of heard about it. Everybody else heard, "Well, this guy gave a really, really smart speech where his sympathy not just for "his own people" but for everybody came through. It simply strengthened the role that this new kind of identity politics played in his victory.
MK: ...Curious to get your sense of when McCain gave that concession speech. I thought, and I wasn't the only one who thought this, that if he had conducted the campaign with that kind of rhetoric and taken that kind of style, it might have been (ifs are ifs!) ... That was a different McCain. That was a McCain a lot of people wanted to see!
HH: It was. And actually I'm surprised we haven't seen more of that from McCain since the election. I had hunch that McCain would end up being a kind of ally of Obama's. But it hasn't happened. That was a very sad spectacle, the moral decline of McCain -- selling his soul bit by bit.
MK: A Faustian drama.
HH: A complete Faustian drama. The minute he decided to do that he began that decline. I only wished that in 2004 he had accepted what I think was kind of an offer from John Kerry to be on John Kerry's ticket. That ticket -- Kerry/McCain -- would have caused a huge fuss at the Democratic convention. It would have driven the pro-choicers nuts! And it would have swept the country. But instead he sold himself off bit by bit and the worst of it was the choice of Palin. Although he didn't know how bad that choice was when he made it. It didn't reflect so much on his willingness to kowtow to the right -- that was part of it -- but it was also his picture of himself as a daring flyboy who takes chances. It appealed to the maverick mythos that he carried with him. But in retrospect it was just an appalling -- an appallingly irresponsible misjudgement. For the first time -- after the Palin choice -- I worried that the McCain whom I'd seen as being much safer for the country than any of the other Republicans, and that even though I thought McCain would run the strongest campaign against the Democrats, that he would be the best president of the Republicans. So as a citizen I was glad he had gotten the nomination. But after the Palin incident I worried about his temperament and how it might be dangerous in the White House.
MK: Many were worried about that during the campaign -- even some of his non-detractors. He had a hot head and ...
HH: ... Yes. Then when he pulled the stunt of trying to cancel the campaign because of the financial crisis -- actually when he did that, similar to the Palin choice -- the first reaction of a lot of Democrats was panic. It was, "Oh my god! This is a real coup! What are we doing to do? He's put Obama [on the spot about ] cancelling the campaign ... It leaves Obama with only two choices: he can either obediently trail along beside McCain to cancel the debate, or he can say, 'No, my political career is more important than the country's welfare.'" And that was a case where Obama, with one line, saved himself and turned everything around when he simply suggested quietly, "I think a president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time."
MK: It's clear what your sentiments are where Sarah Palin is concerned! [laughter] Nonetheless, she has a tremendous base of support. She is probably now, just in terms of enthusiasm and the appeal that she has and her book is selling everywhere (except here in the Bay area where a lot of bookstores won't have it on the shelves!)... Right now it's premature to talk about the next presidential election but she will probably be the leading Republican candidate. If she wanted the nomination, one would have to assume that it's hers.
HH: I don't believe so. Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part. But I really can't picture a semi-serious American political party choosing her as its candidate. And I'm not even persuaded that she really wants it. She may want to run for president as a way of remaining famous and staying in the public eye but there's no evidence at all that she would like to be president. If being governor of Alaska was too much for her and she had to quit that... well, that's not a real hard job.
MK: Her explanation is that she did it for the good of Alaska because of all those lawsuits and all that litigation being brought against her. She wanted to pass the torch on, in that sense, because she felt she was getting too bogged down.
HH: If she thinks she got too bogged down with a couple of lawsuits as governor of Alaska, try being president of the United States with a gigantic fiscal catastrophe and two or three wars going on! Then I think she'd feel even more bogged down!
MK : We have some callers.
Debbie: First of all, Mr. Hertzberg, I just love reading you in the New Yorker. You always are able to verbalize what I don't even know I'm thinking yet!
HH: [laughter] Thank you!
MK: That's the highest form of praise! ...We have some callers.
Debbie: I, too, just fell in love with Obama. Even now I can't help loving him! I'm amazed at myself. I thought, Okay, he's going to break my heart -- I know he's going to break my heart though I don't know how exactly, but I don't care! (When you fall in love, you don't care!)
Debbie: I try to give him all the benefit of the doubt. I'm happy he's president but I have to say I'm really disappointed that he hasn't taken the lead in at least trying for things like single payer. Just going out there, talking to people the way you have acknowledged. He's able to cut through crap and speak simply -- and explain concepts and reach people, and have Robert Rubin and Larry Summers be in charge. That's a great disappointment and I feel ...
MK: ...Excuse me, I want to cut in here. Is he pragmatic or is he progressive? I think that may be part of the problem...
Debbie: Okay. I want to hear...
MK: ... hear what Hendrik has to say.
HH: Well, let's focus on what you said about the health care fight. I believe -- she believes, I think, and Bill Clinton believes and I'd be very surprised if Barack Obama didn't believe -- that single-payer is indeed the way to go.
MK: He said it to the AFL-CIO during the campaign.
HH: Yes, he did. I think you just have to accept the fact, though, that under our bizarro political system at this point, single payer is not a possibility. We will get there some day. But it's not a possibility right now and Obama wants to get something done on this. He wants to achieve something. And the something that he wants to achieve and that he probably will be able to achieve at a minimum is pretty important -- covering some tens of millions more people, preventing people having their insurance taken away when they get sick, or not being able to get it at all because they have so-called "pre-existing conditions." We all have pre-existing conditions! One of them is mortality! ... As a fellow in-love-with-Obama person, I would say to you, ma'am, that it's not Obama who'll break your heart. Yes, your heart's going to get broken. But, leaving aside Afghanistan for just a moment, it won't be Obama that breaks your heart, it'll be a set of venerable political arrangements that make action so difficult in this country. More than in other democracies. That's the thing to focus your disappointment and anger on.
MK: ...You were talking before about how the pro-choice people would have been so angry had McCain been added to the Kerry ticket. But there's a real possibility, as we saw in the House of Representatives, that there may be something the pro-choice people will get extremely angry about in terms of compromise for this health care bill. Already the House has decided to pretty much compromise and get the so-called "conservative Democrats" behind it, saying abortion's not going to be paid for. And now they're talking about that in the Senate as well. Barack Obama wouldn't necessarily support that. But to go along? To get it passed? Yeah... Maybe...
HH: Yeah, maybe. It's premature to have to cross that Rubicon right now. You know in a funny way the best thing that could happen for the pro-choice movement would be the repeal of Roe v Wade. Because right now the privileged class, which does not need a health plan to get an abortion -- you can get one on the open market and it's legal -- as long as that is not threatened a lot of people are willing to vote for anti-choice or so-called "pro-life" candidates. Because they know that in the end they won't be able to get their way. They know that in the end abortion is going to remain legal and available at least to those who can afford it. This is a social justice question. But as it is, abortion has become less and less available -- harder and harder to come by. I think the pro-choice movement must have been asleep at the switch not seeing this coming. But I think that this is one which is worth fighting over. It's premature to talk about whether it's worth torpedoing the whole thing.
Terry: Couple of comments and then a question. First of all, the word "cowards" came to mind when I heard a few months ago that certain people are upset that we're going to bring detainees from Guantanamo and keep them in prisons here. Like, what are we? A bunch of wussies? We can handle that! The same word came to mind when they made the decision to have the trial in New York. Something could happen but it's not as though we've been off the terrorists' radar anyway. My question: I've been under the impression that Obama writes all his own speeches because he's a very eloquent man. Do you know if he writes his own speeches?
HH: Yes, I do know, and no, he doesn't. The important ones he has a very strong hand in. He wrote his own book. There's no question about the fact that he is either the best or one of the two best writers to occupy the White House. He's certainly the only one who wrote a work of undoubted -- at least undoubted to me! -- literary merit.
MK: You said "Dreams From My Father" would stand up as real quality literature, regardless.
HH: I think so. I'm not saying... I wrote at one point after the election that it was now guaranteed a place in the canon, in the American canon. And it's true that he later becomes president that it guarantees that spot in the canon. It's not that this is one of our hundred best books ever written. But it is a work of real, true literary merit. He has a speech-writing staff, quite a small speech-writing staff. I think it's six people. They all are incredibly young. I met a couple of them the other night. There was a meeting of the Judson Welliver Society, which is a kind of annual or semi-annual or quadrennial (or whenever we can get it together!) dinner for old White House speech writers. This one was at Chris Matthews' house. Everybody got together. There were speech writers there from the Truman administration through to the Obama administration. Ted Sorenson was there. It was a wonderful evening.
MK: Peter Robinson, who is at Hoover out here, who wrote "Tear down that wall..."?
HH: He wasn't there, but Tony Dolan was there. Peggy Noonan was there. There was a good representation of Reagan speechwriters. The only administration that was badly represented was Bush 2. There was only one speechwriter there and he was part of the Bush speechwriting staff, but had been a holdover from the Clinton speechwriting staff. The Bush 2 administration was a time of some awkwardness for the Judson Welliver Society. But there were these two kids there from the Obama speechwriting staff. His chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau -- I think he's only 27 -- and the oldest member of the staff is only 32. You can't expect a president to write his own speeches. Presidents give one or two speeches a day on average. He wouldn't have time to do anything else if he wrote his own. But they are his own speeches.
MK: That's another thing you hear from the right often is that he's good at reading teleprompters but off-the-cuff and improvisationally he's not as quick and not as gifted a speaker as he is when he's got speech in front of him.
HH: Well, I should hope not!
MK: Yes, [laughs] I don't know what kind of criticism that amounts to! But there it is.
HH: Evidently they haven't been watching his press conferences.
Joe: I was just watching the HBO documentary on the campaign the other day and was struck by the sense of the historic moment of the election. Not even a year later it's almost been forgotten. I wanted to get your opinion on how much you think the election was really an Obama effect. At the time I thought there was a sea change in American politics and people finally seeing the Republican attack against big government for what it was. And now, less than a year later, the country -- or at least the middle fo the country -- seems to have dramatically shifted back and even liberal pollsters are predicting losses for the Democrats in 2010. So how much do you think the election was really an Obama effect vs people just being unhappy with the status quo and the economy. Now that's actually hurting Obama and is going to hurt Democrats in 2010.
MK: It's not only the polls, Joe. There were two gubernatorial elections that showed maybe some shift back. I don't know. What do you think?
HH: Well, I think you could have predicted before Obama was ever elected -- it could have been predicted 20 years ago -- that the party in power would loose seats in the midterm election. That happens all the time. That always happens. That's a given. It's a question of how many seats they're going to lose. But I do think that yes, Obama came to power and certainly a large part of it was revulsion from the Bush administration. And the Bush administration had more wrong with it than just conservative ideology. It was incompetent and venal and steeped in immorality. There were many ways in which it wasn't conservative at all. It's a little like Reagan's election in 1980. I think Reagan was elected in spite of his ideological conservatism. When people became convinced that he wasn't really serious about nuking the Russians, then they allowed themselves to vote for him on the grounds that at least they could get rid of Jimmy Carter. I think a lot of... Obama will have to create this new era just as Reagan created, in many ways, the conservative era that followed his election. It's part of Obama's responsibility to launch this new what I hope will be progressive ascendance.
MK: I did a program years ago on "Talk of the Nation" on the "Q factor." Likeability. It certainly plays an immense role, I think, in presidential politics. McCain was likeable. Many people felt Obama is very likeable. People still like him, even those who disapprove of his...
HH: Bush had a high Q rating.
MK: Bush had a high one, went out on the stump and was ...
HH: And Palin is off the charts.
MK: Exactly! One thinks of...
HH: Even I like Palin! Not her politics. Not any notion of her being president. Or even a governor. Or even an alderman or mayor. But, you know, she's gorgeous!
MK: And pleasant! I think that's what you're saying. Except if you're Katie Couric, I guess! [laughter] The fact is that this should be far from the American people's concerns and yet it plays a preeminent role.
HH: It does. And it's part of the ... We have an elected monarchy, and elected constitutional monarchy. This branch of government, the executive branch of government, is one person. It's actually not, but all the focus is on one person and so it's only natural that we pay attention to that person's personality. The big difference, I guess, between now and when the presidency was designed is the media. How many Americans ever laid eyes on George Washington? Let alone William Henry Harrison. People got their impressions of the personality of presidents and candidates then through many, many filters -- many degrees of separation. Now they're right in your face. There's more personality to look at. So it counts for more. I don't see any way around it. You can deplore it, but it's the natural function of the set-up.
MK: I remember Jimmy Carter smiling a lot and saying, "I'll never lie to you!" That was kind of a theme of his campaign. After a certain period of time in the White House he came across as folksy and likeable but also kind of stern and demanding. In fact, that was what a lot of people seemed to pick up on about him.
HH: Right. And they were right to notice that. He was stern. He was demanding. And yes, he had this big smile, this big toothy smile...
MK: Ear to ear!
Caller from Berkeley: I have a question about the progressivism of the new politics, and particularly the populist note that Obama struck during the campaign. I think a lot of us who voted for him and feel good about having a smart person as president had high hopes for that. But at the same time he's presided over the bailout which is such a massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the banking class. And I wonder about the possibility of any kind of progressive politics when that goes completely unquestioned around the country.
HH: Well, I'm no economist. But I think even the most progressive columnists like Paul Krugman think that the bailout was a necessity -- that you couldn't let the whole credit system of the country collapse because that would plunge us into a great depression. I'm not sure that I agree that Obama was such a populist during the campaign. There was a moment when everybody except Obama jumped on the idea of a gas tax holiday. That was a big progressive gesture -- let's say populist gesture -- that McCain was for and Hillary Clinton was for. Obama rejected that. Populist politics cuts both ways. The rightwing -- the hard right -- rebellion against Obama has enormously strong populist overtones.
MK: What's so fascinating about it are the two almost -- I suppose this is typical of politics and you're more of a sage on this than I could ever be -- but the vectors from the extremes. On the one hand you have Obama being called a socialist because of the bailout and now the government owning most of General Motors and those kinds of things. And on the other hand saying he wants to round up the center and he wants to do what fascists have traditionally done against those who are opposed to him -- as if he's a neo-Nazi or something along those lines.
HH: Yes, those are the same people saying both those things. There's no real equivalent on the left. The closest thing to an equivalent are charges made on the right, I guess. It's the idea that he's a servant of the bankers and the rich, and that's the hidden agenda here. I, too, wish that his economic team had been headed by somebody more like Paul Volcker -- though maybe a little too old for the job! Somebody who would have taken a harder line with the banks ... But Paul Volcker is not exactly Leon Trotsky! I mean the distance isn't that great. Yes, I would rather have had a bigger stimulus. I would rather have had a stimulus with fewer tax cuts and more spending.
MK: What about the vetting of the Obama administration? There are those who have said critically -- even Obama supporters -- how do you get a guy who doesn't pay his taxes as secretary of Treasury like Timothy Geithner! How do you have Van Jones -- whom we know from having had him on the program a number of times and had a relationship with for years -- who should have been vetted about what petitions he was signing and what Communist party he belonged to, and that sort of thing!
HH: Yeah, there have been a couple of slips along the way. There always are. If anything, though, the administration seems to be a little too cautious in vetting and very slow in making judicial appointments. There are an awful lot of jobs that are still unfilled, even in the State Department. That isn't just their fault. In fact it's probably more the fault of holes in the Senate and delay tactics by Republicans in the Senate. It's a small wart on the otherwise smooth face.
MK: You bring the Senate up -- a number of times. You're talking about just a few senators who are going to make the difference in this health care bill. What do make of Lindsey Graham saying it's dead on arrival? It's not going to make it through the Senate, whatever it is, however Harry Reid crafts it? A lot of people don't think Harry Reid has the savvy or cunning of our congressional representative, Nancy Pelosi to begin with.
HH: Lindsey Graham? That communist?! Well I don't know what he means by "nothing" or by "dead on arrival." If what he means is that the House bill -- the bill as passed by the House -- is not going to emerge either from the Senate or a conference committee, he's just saying the obvious. It's going to be different. But if he's saying that nothing is going to happen...
MK: ... I think the latter
HH: He's saying nothing's going happen? Nothing will pass? It'll be a total failure?
MK: That House bill as it was constituted will come to the Senate and is simply not going to be... they're going to have to start from scratch because it's not going to be acceptable.
HH: Well, they don't start from that anyway. They don't start with the House bill. They start with the bills from the various Senate committees. So it's a canard anyway that the House bill is going to be considered by the Senate. The Senate bill will be considered by the Senate. Whatever they come up with will then have to be jammed together with the House bill that's already been passed. The bills will have to be shoved together and made to harmonize somehow. And then the whole thing will have to be passed again by both houses. It's kind of hard to get anything done in this system!
MK: It is indeed, isn't it?
HH: And yet, even with the crazy Byzantine committees and all the veto points, if we didn't have the filibuster this thing would be a slam-dunk.