John McCaslin, author of "Inside the Beltway," you finished the entire book and the acknowledgments by saying this. "Finally, I am truly blessed to be the middle son of Robert W. McCaslin, grandfather of Phineas McCaslin and seven elder cohorts, and upon stoking his wood stove each morning, sits down to read every word I write." Explain all that to us.
You know, the greatest compliment for any journalist comes from his mother. My mom has passed away, so my dad is still in the house where I grew up. And my editor, Wesley Pruden, at "The Washington Times," says, “don`t write a story too long.” He`s constantly drilling that into the heads of reporters because he said, “in this day and age of information overload, nobody has time to read an entire story.” So at my newspaper and at the syndicate, we try to write shorter. I write very short in my anecdotal stories of Capitol Hill and the White House. -- but the only person, he said, that will ever read every word you will write is your mother. I`m glad to say my father has carried that on.
How old a man is he now?
He`s 87 years old, still living in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.
And you talk about the seven elder cohorts. What`s that?
All my nieces and nephews, and it`s keeping my dad quite busy. He`s still very politically astute at this age, being in proximity in the shadow of the Washington monument, but his grandchildren are keeping him busy. My way just to get them all mentioned in the book.
This book, "Inside the Beltway," is about what?
It`s basically a compilation of the last 25 years of what I`ve experienced in journalism, going on my 25th year now. But I go back even further, having grown up inside the Beltway. I write a little bit about the history of Washington, the history of Alexandria, which was actually there before Washington, D.C., George Washington`s home town, tell a lot of anecdotes about everything from the Revolutionary War up through the Civil War, and then go right into the present day situation and the problems we`re having in Iraq today.
Eighteen thousand items?
I have written, I figure -- I`ve been writing the "Inside the Beltway" column now for going on 13 years, about 18,000 anecdotes and thousands of columns. In fact, when I compiled everything, just for research purposes, of what I`ve written, only with regard to the "Inside the Beltway" column, I had so many books sitting on my floor that could have been written. It was very difficult to choose the best material to put in narrative form in this book.
Someone who`s never been here, what does "Inside the Beltway" mean?
"Inside the Beltway" is obviously -- the Beltway is a 66-mile ring of heavy traffic that encircles Washington, D.C. None of us local folks, I`m sure yourself, like to even get on the Beltway. It`s a treacherous drive, usually at a standstill, I might add. But it`s also an expression in Washington, and I`ve written an entire chapter about what "Inside the Beltway” means by going through all of my columns, and as well as new fresh material, quoting all the senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill who talk about, you know, having this Beltway malady. And it can be something negative. It can be something positive, if you make it so. But usually, it`s to the opposite extreme. You get caught up in Washington and all the politics, all the shenanigans, and it`s like a syndrome.
You don`t tell us -- I think I know, though, from the history of the story -- about the senator that walked into the closet. What`s that about?
Well, you know, the reason I didn`t name him is because I was hosting Rush Limbaugh one day, and I did mention him and he denied it, but it was kind of hard for him to deny wholeheartedly because I happened to be in the room at the time, as well as one of my colleagues who corroborated the story for me, so I felt safe to go with it. But he finished grilling -- and the reason I didn`t mention him is there`s enough litigation in Washington, and I figured, why even put the name in and get in trouble?
But he got up after grilling a witness very forcefully, and he stepped into the back of the panel area, as if he was going to exit the room, and I think he did think he was leaving the room, and he walked into a closet. And he went into the closet and he stayed in there for a few seconds, I think very embarrassed, obviously. As I wrote, he was -- must have been paying homage to the brooms and the mops. And then he came out, as if he`d been -- had intended the entire time to have stepped into the closet, and then he exited the hearing room. So it was quite a sight.
Correct me if I`m wrong -- Midwestern, no longer in the United States Senate, a Republican. Are we close?
I think so, yes.
OK. I don`t want to get into trouble, either. You talk about 9/11 and the Pentagon. Where were you when that plane hit the Pentagon?
In Washington. Many of us live in Virginia or in the Maryland suburbs. And I happen to live in Virginia and was just getting in the usual line of motorists that every morning cross the 14th Street bridge into Washington, one of our more famous bridges, and the Pentagon, at that point, is to your left.
And I write about listening, as all the other motorists were, to what was taking place in New York City. We had one tower hit. Then another tower got hit. And upon the strike of the second tower, I looked up and noticed that a very bright orange and blue jet was taking off into this crystal blue sky that we had here in Washington that day. It was just a beautiful day. And I thought to myself, “how can this jet be taking off when the FAA, more than anybody, has to realize what`s going on in New York City?”
And it was at that almost precise instant that over my left shoulder, in came this American Airlines flight on its twisted path. Obviously, the terrorists aboard. And in my -- in fact, I felt the impact before I heard it. It was just like this pop. And over my left shoulder, obviously, we saw the mushroom cloud, so to speak, the explosion.
I proceeded over the 14th Street bridge, looking in my rear-view mirror at the sky just filled with smoke, did a U-turn not far from the C-SPAN studios here, drove back across the 14th Street bridge, literally arriving there before any of the emergency personnel.
And it was a horrific several hours. I was there as they were bringing the injured out, some of the victims out. They would put them beneath the shade of a tree. And I was phoning in reports at the time. And then my thoughts turned to my family. As George Bush said later, everybody`s thoughts in this country turned to their families and their children and the future and their safety. We`ve never had anything like this, obviously, happen. And I proceeded at that point, instead of going in to work, to drive to get my daughter from the school in Alexandria, and then went home and wrote the most difficult column of my life.
Why was it hard?
I think because of what I had seen personally. You know, I thought of Oklahoma City at first. We weren`t sure exactly what had happened at first. And I was standing at the Pentagon next to their day care center, which is no longer there, by the way, and there were tricycles. You could tell where the children were just snatched up and taken by the personnel to safety after the explosion. And I think it was for once witnessing something firsthand.
And it so happened, ironically, that several weeks later -- the Senate Hart office building is one of my regular haunts. I park over near there, and then get into the Senate Hart building, where the subway runs beneath, jump on the subway, which is the private subway for the congressional folks to go to the Senate press gallery. And I happened to be in the Senate Hart office building when the anthrax envelope was opened up by Tom Daschle`s secretary. So I also went through the entire testing procedure, the cipro, et cetera. And it was easier, in retrospect, to write both about the Pentagon and what happened in the Senate Hart office building from a firsthand standpoint, having witnessed it and experienced it.
And it terrified me. It really did. Obviously, it was a very deadly pair of incidents in the nation`s capital, as well as New York City. And for once, I experienced them firsthand, as I said.
This is three years later. How has it changed your job?
I think probably 75 percent of what I write today is somehow 9/11 or its’ wake related and what we`re doing with everything from the 9/11 commission and how we can make this country safer. Immigration is now playing a much bigger role. It`s on the minds of more Americans, so I write a lot about the immigration problems, both legal and illegal immigration, and as we try to shore up our borders. It`s a tremendous task. It`s daunting. It`s still frightening. We have a long way to go. I think many Americans, especially in Washington, New York, where our alert levels are higher, are waiting constantly for the other shoe to drop. I pray it never does.
In the acknowledgements, you give Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily credit for getting you to write the book. You host from time to time the Rush Limbaugh Show. You write in "The Washington Times." Is it fair to assume that you`re a conservative, a Republican?
No, in fact, I think Rush Limbaugh`s producers would be the first ones to tell you that they`ve come in during commercial breaks and said, “you know, Rush feels this way on that point. Do you want to take a position?” And I said, “look, I`ve got to go back and I`ve got to work with Bill Frist and Tom Daschle. I have to try to retain what we learned in journalism 101.” Even though I have license, as a columnist, to state my opinion, I usually don`t, but readers of the column can read between the lines. And I will sometimes try to make a point that way.
But when I`ve been a guest on certain shows, I`ve tried not to go as a conservative or as a moderate. I do consider myself in the middle of the road. I agree with some of what the Republican Party stands for, but I disagree on other points. And it`s the same way with the Democrats.
If somebody doesn`t live here -- and most don`t -- how can they read you?
I`m on line every day. There`s a link on the Drudge Report, which I guess is still one of the most visited Web sites. Washingtontimes.com is our specific Web site, one of the still free Web sites to get into, news-related. And Townhall.com carries my syndicated column through "The Chicago Tribune."
All right. Where do you work every day? What`s the environment?
Usually the Capitol Hill area. And I`ll pop into the White House every now and then. But I can tell you that since George Bush has arrived in town, it`s a different beast than it was for the eight years that Bill Clinton was in town. And I go back to having covered the Reagan administration as a White House correspondent.
Despite all the scandals in the Clinton administration, they were very open. You could pick up the phone, you would get a phone call back from Mike McCurry or George Stephanopoulos. George Bush laid down the law not too far into his presidency that few people were to speak, obviously, without getting permission. Andy Card I think learned that in a rather embarrassing way because it happened to be captured on camera one time about something he said out of school. So there`s very little that we can call from the West Wing. I think people are afraid to talk. So there`s much fewer visits into the White House than there used to be.
How much of what you write every day -- or how many items in most columns?
Usually six or seven anecdotes, 23.5 inches every day, which, for the layman, if you put two rulers on end and put it in a straight column, that`s how long it is.
How much of that is phoned in to you because you have established this reputation over the last 13 years?
I think the most important tool for any journalist in Washington is a Rolodex, and the more sources you can have in the bowels of the bureaucracy, the better, and even within the administration or Capitol Hill. I get phone calls every day. I get e-mails every day, now that we`re into the Internet age. And I stumble across things. People I see, I`ll write about. That happens quite frequently. So you still walk the beat in Washington, but obviously, telecommunications has changed the beast a little bit in terms of journalism, as well.
Have you done any surveys to know how many people come to your column that read "The Washington Times" every day?
I have been told that the "Inside the Beltway" column is the second most visited site on "The Washington Times" Web site.
In 1994, I believe, you visited Century City.
Century City. You know, I was extremely honored as a young reporter to cover the White House. I was 27 years of age. I think at the time I was probably the youngest regular White House correspondent. And it was a very intriguing and eye-opening several years for me. The day that Edwin Meese III left the White House as one of president Reagan`s aides to go to the Justice Department was the day I left and, as I wrote, returned to reality because I knew I probably shouldn`t have been there.
Several years later, my daughter was born, and I wanted her to meet President Reagan. And I telephoned Fred Ryan, who was one of Ronald Reagan`s top aides over the years and is now vice president of Albritton Communications here in Washington, which is a television network, so to speak. And I mentioned to Fred that I was going to California to see friends and I would love to stop by and see President Reagan. And Fred got back to me later and said, Could you come a few days earlier than what you proposed? And I didn`t hesitate. I said certainly.
And had my daughter wear a red dress because Ronald Reagan used to like to call on the red-dressed ladies in the East Wing during the news conferences. The thinking was that the red caught his eye, as opposed to the beauty, like other presidents might select their questioners.
And it was a wonderful hour. I think a sit-down like that is usually supposed to last 10 minutes. They come in and take a few pictures. We got back to Washington. My daughter, I believe, was only 6 or 7 years of age at the time. And probably a few days later, wonderful inscriptions arrived with these photographs. Ronald Reagan was known for usually signing his name, and he wrote a wonderful tribute to my daughter about the red dress, about her future, and similarly, wrote an inscription like that to me, recalling all the travels which I had brought up during the meeting with him.
And I wrote about it. I wrote about how he was not impressed with the smog of Los Angeles. Here`s a guy that was never once ever credited for being an environmentalist, and for five minutes, he just talked about how his view is now ruined of the Pacific Ocean. And he talked about his ranch and the outdoors and how he loved it. And I -- that was sort of the flavor. I talked a little bit about Maggie Thatcher, who was I think his favorite of all leaders in the free world.
And it shocked me several days later, when there was this announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer`s disease. And I realized then what Fred Ryan might have done for me, extreme honor. And in retrospect, you know, I`ll never forget. I`ll never forget that day and that opportunity. And we`ve just buried him, and I am very happy to say that I`m going to be going out to the Reagan library later this fall for a book signing, and I`m looking forward to that.
Your daughter, Kerry -- is that your only child, by the way?
Is how old today? And does she remember this?
She`s 16 years of age. She does remember it. We have that photograph prominently displayed in our living room. And she and I were in London when the president passed away this past summer, and we were glued to the television set, despite the schedule -- the tourist schedule we had over there, her first trip and my first trip together to London. And we watched the BBC for hours on end.
When you were not very much older than your daughter, Kerry, at age 20, you interviewed someone named Elizabeth Ray.
Who was she?
Elizabeth Ray was the mistress of Capitol Hill at the time in that era, who became famous for the quote, “I`ve never even learned to type.” I believe she was paid more than $40,000 a year by Wayne Hayes, who was a congressman. And the scandal came out, and Elizabeth Ray, after spilling her soul to the press, decided to go through some spiritual training, so to speak. And that was accomplished at St. Mary`s Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where my mother happened to be the secretary.
And I had heard through my mom that Elizabeth Ray was calling. None of that got out to the press because she wanted to, you know, have some privacy in the wake of what had transpired. It was a huge scandal in Washington.
And to make a long story short, I came home for a friend`s funeral in Alexandria, who had passed away at a very young age, when who, in the midst of my mourning, should saunter out of St. Mary`s rectory, where the priests lived and were giving her this counseling, but Elizabeth Ray. And I knew it was her because she had just bared her soul in "Playboy" magazine. And I was in college at the time, and we`d seen the magazine there, passed it around the dormitory.
And so literally, the day before my journalism professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk had given us the assignment of interviewing a pillar of the community, whether it be an alderman or a police chief or a judge, but looking at that statuesque blonde come out of the rectory, I could see no better pillar in my community and approached her and asked if I could interview her. And again, this was in the height of all the controversy. And five minutes later, we were seated at my kitchen table.
My mother didn`t know what to make of her son`s first scoop. And I had a tremendous interview. Thank heavens, I recorded it because I was hyperventilating during the entire time. And it landed on the front page of my college newspaper, was picked up by one of the wire services in Norfolk, Virginia, and went national. And that`s, I think, when I got bit by the bug of journalism.
Where is Elizabeth Ray today?
You know, the last time I saw where Elizabeth Ray was, I was in West Chicago, Illinois, and I went by a pancake house, and up on the marquis, it said, Appearing tonight, Elizabeth Ray. I know she had gone to New York, which I broke that exclusive in the story. She was going to study acting under Lee Strasburg. I don`t think the acting worked out. I think she went into the lounge singing circuit. I think that`s what she was doing at this pancake house, which at night was obviously serving things other than pancakes. And I have no idea where she is now.
How many years of your life have you lived in Alexandria, Virginia?
I lived all of my life there, except from 1980 to -- through college, I was in Norfolk. And then 1980 to 1984, I launched my journalism career in Kalispell, Montana. So I was there four years before coming back to cover the Reagan White House.
What was the impact of Old Dominion University on your -- or was it called Old Dominion College then?
Old Dominion University. It used to be the Norfolk division of William and Mary at Williamsburg.
What was the impact of that education on you?
It was a wonderful education. I had a great journalism professor. I majored in speech communication, so when I did move to Montana -- I came back home to Washington. And in 1980, that period, there weren`t the internships that there are now, nor did we have the 24-hour capable news channels, which, obviously, are always looking for people, including interns, and it was an acquaintance at CBS that said, “you have to go somewhere and get experience.” And I explained, “but I`m from Washington. You know, what does a guy do who grew up here?” And he said, “You go to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You go to Butte, Montana.”
Well, I went to Kalispell, Montana, where my grandfather used to be deputy sheriff. And there was no more beautiful place in the country that I knew of. Teddy Roosevelt used to call it "little Switzerland." And I had a wonderful four years in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. And President Reagan came out twice. Vice President Bush came out twice, once to fish, once to camp in Glacier Park, which I was privileged to accompany him on.
And James Watt used to use Glacier National Park -- those were obviously -- all of his days were very controversial, but James Watt, as I wrote, used to practice reverse psychology on the greenies by standing before the cascading waterfalls of Glacier National Park to announce his unpopular environmental initiatives. And so there was a lot of national news that I could report there, more experience probably than I would have gotten in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in retrospect.
You say that former Secretary of Interior James Watt taught you a lesson.
He did teach me a lesson. There was one day that he was in Glacier and...
First of all, for those who`ve never heard of James Watt, when was he secretary of the interior?
He was secretary of the interior during the first half of the Reagan administration, which would have been 1980, probably through 1983, I believe, was when he resigned, if I`m not wrong.
What was his image?
I think his image, as far as the media was concerned, was not only an anti-environmentalist, but he made headlines. I think the most resounding headlines were when he banned the Beach Boys from the National Mall here in Washington because of budgetary reasons. And anybody would think back then, oh, you know, that`s not that big of a deal, but the media had a heyday with it, and they dogged him until his last days in office.
Lesson he taught you?
So we -- my radio station, where I worked, was going from 10,000 watts to 50,000 watts. It was KJJR radio station. And I typed up this clever little promotion that I handed to him in a bathroom in Glacier National Park because he wasn`t in the mood to do any interviews that day. So I thought, well, this is my only chance. I followed him in. There was no place for him to turn, standing there, facing porcelain walls, and pulled out my tape recorder, with his permission, short time later. And he read this promo that was filled with the word "watt" because of the fact we were changing watts, and not only that, it was his last name.
And he stumbled over his name several times, and we had to do several takes. And I had promised him, Don`t worry. I will only use the one final take. But it was so hilarious to me, his difficulty with reading this, that I soon became part of this pack that was after him and aired the entire thing on the radio during that evening`s lighter side of the newscast. Little did I know James Watt would be listening in his car as he was driving from Glacier Park to Glacier Park International Airport, which is in the Flathead Valley.
No sooner did he reach the airport than he picked up the phone -- this is the kind of guy he was -- and telephoned me at the studios. And I was embarrassed. I`d gone against my word. And credibility is the most important thing for a journalist. I think it takes time to learn that. I did not know it at the time, but he taught me the lesson of credibility. And I think he forgave me. A few weeks later, an 8-by-10 photograph of both of us taken in Glacier Park by a photographer arrived in the mail. And he had inscribed, "To John McCaslin. Thanks for breaking me into radio. James Watt." And he resigned about a month later.
The first couple of chapters of this book are about, among other things, grizzly bears.
Yes. There`s -- apart from infrequent trips by politicians to Montana, we`re constantly surrounded by beautiful country, and within this country lives the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 United States. Glacier Park, I believe, has hundreds -- several hundred, up to 600 or 700 bears. And while I was there, we had the famous book, "The Year of the Grizzlies," or "The Night of the Grizzlies," I should say, that was written back in the 1970s.
I happened to experience in my first year in Montana the “year of the grizzlies,” when we had three people killed by bears within the first couple months of my arrival. And they make for great stories. As sad as some of them turned out to be, there`s some humorous tales of grizzly bear encounters there, as well. I`m not sure what my publisher thought of me writing about grizzly bears in the first two chapters of a book on shenanigans in Washington, D.C., but I think readers will delight in it, and it segues perfectly, I think, into the Reagan White House because covering one beast is not dissimilar from covering another beast.
The Bob Bennett story?
Bob Bennett, President Clinton`s attorney here in Washington, who many believed helped keep the former president out of the clinker -- the great thing about the state of Montana, if anybody has any connection to it, you learn about it, especially in a small city that Washington, D.C., actually is, in many ways. And Bob Bennett and I on several occasions would talk about Montana. He had a house out there, not far from where I lived, and he had an encounter of a grizzly bear, nearly was killed by one. They were charged by one, he and another photographer, that had been standing atop a bison, having his daily meal. I think there were some cubs nearby. And a grizzly mother will always protect her cubs. That`s her first instinct.
And they immediately dropped to the fetal position, which you`re supposed to do, and you`re supposed to play dead. And if you`re dead, a grizzly bear will leave you alone for that period of time and then come back. And you know, you would probably become a victim if you stayed in that position for too long, but normally, when the bear walks off, you scamper as fast as you can out of there. And Mr. Bennett did do that and lived to tell about it.
There`s so many stories, I`m just going to jump around as I find one and see how much I can get from you on the story. The story of Barbara Bush and Yeltsin. Do you remember -- I mean, if you don`t remember, I`ve got the page open to...
No, no. I do remember that. That was -- you know, and I write about so many of the political figures in Washington, first ladies included. Barbara Bush was quintessential first lady. Obviously, Hillary Clinton, who followed, was a different style of first lady, one we had not seen in Washington for a while. So we didn`t hear too often about Barbara Bush.
But it was after they left the White House that she told the story of an encounter she had with Boris Yeltsin, who obviously was a tremendous worldwide figure at the time. And he -- and I can`t wait for readers to delve into it because there`s more to the story. But to make it short, he talked about what it meant for a gentleman to tap the foot of a lady beneath the table while they were having dinner. And he was doing this with Mrs. Bush and explained to her what it meant. And she got a big kick out of that but waited -- the style of woman she was, she waited until she left office to tell the tale.
Well, you write, "`In this country,` Yeltsin continued, `it means the woman loves the man.` `Without realizing it, I began grinding his foot into the ground with my foot,` Mrs. Bush explained. And obviously impressed, the Russian leader later scribbled note to the first lady on a White House menu, `You stepped on my foot. You knew what it meant. And I felt the same way.`" (LAUGHTER)
Now, where did you find something like that?
I got it from Mrs. Bush later, when she remarked about it in a setting where I happened to be. I don`t recall exactly where it was. But I did write that in my column.
The chapter named "Erin Brokovich—Of Course" is -- what`s in that?
I write about Al Gore. And obviously, in our lifetime, there`ll probably be -- never be another election like the election of 2000. And we all woke up the morning after the election thinking we would have a president of the United States. I know my newspaper, for instance, changed its headlines three or four times overnight, from President Bush to President Gore, back to President Bush, back to President Gore. And then Florida came into play. And then I think our last headline of the day was "Undecided."
And we went along for several weeks like this, and during that period, as we all recall, Al Gore was doing everything possible to become the president of the United States, which he felt was rightfully his and deserved. And finally, when it got down to the final day or two, he would have done anything. And I quote his aide, who Al Gore awakened in the middle of the night, I believe it was in Tennessee, and said, I have an idea. Let`s get Erin Brokovich to plead my case. She did such a great job. The movie was based on her, what she did with regard to that environmental dump site. And he thought if he could employ her help, maybe he could become president of the United States. And even the aide thought it ridiculous and said, “Erin Brokovich? Of course.”
"One of the best things about being a political columnist in Washington is you get to interview just about anybody you want. For me, Al Gore was always somebody else`s interview." You`re leading into an interview you had with Christie Brinkley.
Christie Brinkley. And then after Christie Brinkley, Kim Alexis. I called the Gore office in the White House and requested an interview with Al Gore. And I must say, I did talk to him on several occasions, but it was when you would encounter him. I never had a sit-down interview with him, as many other reporters were able to do during that very stressful period in his life. So instead, the White House said, “could you call this model, Christie Brinkley, who`s a big supporter of Al Gore, and interview her?”
Well, I`m like any red-blooded male American, and I said, “of course I could.” And we had intriguing conversation about politics. The woman obviously supported Al Gore and told me the same. She also gave me some interesting quotes about why she didn`t like President Bush. She could not understand why women were attracted to President Bush physically. Some incredible mail after that to my column from one gentleman that said, “well, what does Christie Brinkley think her attributes are? Why does she think we pay attention to her, if it`s not her looks?” So he thought it ironic that she would say that about President Bush.
Why do we pay attention to actresses?
You know, that`s -- I happened to do an interview recently, my first ever interview on VH-1. And it was a very difficult interview because of the questions they asked me. I`m used to answering rather difficult, to-the-point questions about life on Capitol Hill, and their audience was more interested in, you know, who wears the nicest neckties, who`s the most pampered, and who is surrounded by the most prestigious folks. And it`s -- there`s no secret that the Democrats in Washington are followed very closely and supported very closely financially and with regard to public speaking engagements by most of Hollywood. And it`s different, I think, for the Republicans.
So I think that`s one reason. I think that Christie Brinkley falls into that mold. I do write in that chapter that after interviewing Christie Brinkley, I only thought it fair to interview Kim Alexis, who happened to be an outspoken supporter of George Bush. As many people called to tell me, in fact, she was going so far as to fast to show America that we needed to elect a Republican president after eight years of the Clinton White House.
You have, I don`t know what you call it, verse I guess, Lyn Nofziger`s -- from Lyn Nofziger`s book. Was this book titled "Unbridled Joy: The Verse of Joy Skilmer?"
When did he print -- when did he publish that book?
He published that book about two or three years ago and sent me a signed copy. And I was very happy to review it for my column and include a few passages. And it wasn`t Lyn`s first. He has got a couple published volumes of these great poems.
He wrote them himself?
This one says, "I wonder if we will ever see a country that is Clinton-free. A time when Hillary and Bill have left us and gone over the hill. A time when they don`t think they mean each one to be our president, to tell us all what`s best for us, defy us then, to make a fuss, to insist they`re meant to rule us. Sure as always, they can fool us. A time when they at last have quit their drinking from the public teat, when Bill no longer wags his jaw, instead goes home to Arkansas, and Hillary no longer runs but takes to baking hot crossed buns." Why was that interesting to you?
Well, I think we all got a kick about writing about her cookies, that she was not the type of wife that stays home, or mother, and bakes cookies, that she was going to have an impact in Washington. We obviously saw through eight years of the Clinton administration that she did play, as I mentioned earlier, a rather unusual, unprecedented role for first lady in this country, starting out with health care. She wanted to begin writing the nation`s prescriptions. That failed. There were many other causes she took up. And she got quite a following through all the turmoil that she went through, both personally and with regard to what she tried to accomplish in the White House. And that helped her become elected senator of New York. And there are many in this town who believe, and I am included, that she will run for president in the year 2008.
And for a columnist like you, what does that all mean?
The hot crossed buns or the fact that she is climbing the ladder the way she does?
If she becomes more prominent than she is now and runs, let`s say she wins someday. Is that good or bad for a columnist?
That would be very good for a columnist. It`s been a very difficult three and a half years for me in light of the fact that George Bush is the boy scout that he is. He goes to bed every night between 9:00 and 9:30. His wife is nothing like Hillary Rodham Clinton. There`s no point scouring the East Wing for scandals that she might have. She is a librarian, after all. A wonderful woman, as was Mrs. Clinton.
But you know, it`s going to be intriguing to look forward to the next four years, depending on the outcome of the 2004 election, to see what happens. And I wouldn`t be surprised if we had a rematch of the early New York Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. That would be very intriguing, for not only me but for any columnist in the nation`s capital.
Chapter seven, "Fisticuffs and Fruitcakes."
You know, I point out that congressmen and senators are no different than you and me. They are dog walkers. They`re den mothers. They are Boy Scout leaders. And like you and I, sometimes they lose their temper. The fruitcakes quote came most recently in late 2003 during one altercation between two congressmen during a hearing on Capitol Hill, in which one repeatedly called the other one -- and this is in a crowded hearing room, obviously televised by C-SPAN, so you have children watching. And you have these adults who we elect to Capitol Hill calling each other fruitcakes. We`ve -- I have devoted an entire chapter to that, which gets in more to the definition of this Beltway malady that we discussed earlier.
But we have had Capitol Hill policemen that have had to have been called, that have had to have been called to separate warring congressmen. Some of the altercations become physical.
Let`s see. Let`s pick -- "Beltway Fever warns Senator Rod Grams" -- he`s not here any longer – “of Minnesota, describing the presidents and other elected officials who fall victim to, quote, "the unreal atmosphere of this place, and eventually forget what it was that first propelled them into public office." Is it unreal here?
It is at times. And you know, that gets into the whole term limit debate, how long should these senators and congressmen be serving on Capitol Hill? We have people like Robert Byrd, who I believe have outlasted 10 presidents now in their reign. Claude Pepper, I`ll never forget, before he passed away, a wonderful lawmaker. I can remember one North Dakota Democrat going into his office and pointing out in my column, I couldn`t believe it. He had just been elected to Capitol Hill. And he walked in to meet Claude Pepper, who had been here for years, and behind Claude Pepper`s desk was a photograph of Orville or Wilbur Wright, I forget which one, which was inscribed to Claude Pepper. Now, here`s the man who invented the flight. And below that was a photograph from Neil Armstrong after he had stepped foot on the moon, inscribed to Claude Pepper. That`s how long that man had served on Capitol Hill.
So some of them do get caught up, and by no means am I being disrespectful to Claude Pepper, who had a wonderful career. But there is an argument out there, those that are in favor of term limits, that we should spend less time on Capitol Hill, because we forget why we are here.
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, quote, "if you stay here too long, you become part of the problem. You become a Beltway animal." He`s quitting, going back home.
He is quitting, though.
How often do people quit?
You know, there was the period back in the early 1990s, when an entire freshman House made the point when they got here, that they were going to stay for I think three terms maximum. And you had people like Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who is now the governor of South Carolina, keep true to that. Some of them did not.
Beltway animal, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, you say he’s quitting. How often do others quit? It happens from time to time. Most of them are voted out, I must say. Ben Nighthorse Campbell had a sit-down with me one time, about five, six, seven years ago. He opened up for an hour and a half about the attacks he was taking, not only from the Democratic Party, because he switched parties and became a Republican in mid-stride on Capitol Hill, but from constituents back home. And they never gave up on that.
You devote a couple of pages to Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, a congresswoman, and Mel Martinez, who is running for the Senate in Florida. Why?
One of the most outspoken outbursts that I have ever experienced in my two decades of covering Capitol Hill was very rude, and readers will understand that when they read the entire transcript, which I think speaks for itself. And I wanted to put it all in there, so readers would understand.
After I put that in my column, I was inundated with mail. She basically was a lawyer, a prosecutor, during Mel Martinez`s first inaugural testimony on Capitol Hill as a Bush administration official. Taking out her frustrations on public housing on Mr. Martinez, even though it was more George Bush`s doing, and the entire administration. And she was admonished by the committee chairwoman, who said she had never heard anything like that.
And one column will feed another column, as I have found out. I write five days a week, and within a day, I heard from the congresswoman, who explained her position to me, and I put that in there.
But it I think gives the reader a flavor of how dicey it can get on Capitol Hill. There`s a lot of fighting that goes on here. We had a congressman one day who I also write about in the book, who showed up for a committee hearing and opened up his jacket to show that he had a bulletproof vest on. And it was more in jest, but he just wanted to point out, I am prepared today to take it from all sides.
You write "South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings" -- he is also retiring -- "remembers the late Richard Russell of Georgia, saying, quote, `They give you a six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Two years to be a statesman, the next two years to be a politician, and the last two years to be a demagogue.` Regrettably, Hollings says, we are no longer afforded even two years as statesman. We go straight to politics and demagoguery right after the election."
And I think you are seeing a lot of that right now in this 2004 presidential election. It has been very divisive, and that obviously streams down into the congressional and the Senate races that are going on this year as well.
I think that that also gets into the reign of how long a congressman serves on Capitol Hill. That`s being debated. Should they serve only two years? A senator serves six years. But is two years enough? And I say that because no sooner does the House side of Congress get elected, that within six months, you are almost running for reelection again, as long as the campaign takes today. And obviously you have got the other side, whether it be Democrat or Republican, gearing up in the wings to challenge you. So a campaign almost begins instantaneously again for reelection after you take office on the House side.
What is your daily time deadline for your column?
I have a late afternoon, early evening deadline. I can update a column through 10:00 o`clock at night, if I happen to go to an event and something happens. I try not to do that too often. But when you do write five days a week, and two days for a syndicate, that`s basically seven columns every four and a half days, which is a tremendous amount of writing.
I am always writing the next day`s column, and perhaps the day after that is the same day I am writing the following column.
Biggest response you ever got from some item.
You know, I think of what has happened of late to CBS, and these allegations that this phony document with regard to George Bush`s National Guard service is real or not. And I have been burned a few times, so when I think of impact, I think of what has embarrassed me the most. I have had that happen to me before. My first reaction after I heard that was thank God that wasn`t me, because with the advent of the computer, people are so capable today of altering photographs, as we have seen in the past, documents, as perhaps we are seeing again. And you have to be very careful today.
So I think the biggest impact you have in my mind is what you have done wrong, because people love to jump on that. I would say probably exclusive surrounding the presidency, if you can get something out of the White House, are always big stories, but there`s no way I think I can pinpoint one as much as I have written over the years.
How about your biggest mistake?
Several of them. One had to do with Ken Lay of Enron. We got very late in the afternoon -- in fact, it was pointed out to me by one of my colleagues -- here`s an incredible list of things that the Democrats are saying, you know, this White House has done, and I threw it into the column without checking it as much as I should have, and one of the points, one of the talking points was that Ken Lay had spent the night at the White House during the Clinton administration, which never happened before. He had visited the White House, and I just didn`t pay attention to that sentence.
And something like that really comes back to haunt you. The cover-up in Washington, as many politicians and journalists don`t understand, the cover-up is the biggest problem. That`s when it can really hurt you. So as fast as you can get a correction and a retraction in the paper, the better.
There was one other story that haunts me, but there`s nothing I really could do about it, because my source stood by it, and that was President Clinton`s last day in Washington. George Bush had just taken the oath of office, and as a kind gesture, allowed President Clinton to take what was Air Force One to New York. It doesn`t have that title when a non-president is flying aboard it.
And I had a very good source within the aircraft, worked for the military, tell me that the plane was basically -- as has happened, I have flown on Air Force One myself. We all like to take souvenirs. I usually took M&M peanuts, which even had the presidential seal, you know, bathrobes, things like that would be swiped periodically, and I think the Air Force came to expect that.
This steward had told me that basically more had been taken by the Clinton staff than they had seen in a long time, all the way down to the Colgate toothpaste underneath the sink.
And I wrote it, and I must say the word "stripped" was used, and when it hit the streets the next day, it snowballed beyond that to where the plane was basically all but disassembled by the Clinton administration, and this was on board with the president. And a few days later President Bush came out and basically stated that did not happen.
I was in a situation where I couldn`t say, OK, this document was phony, I apologize, because I had a source who stood by the story. But it didn`t make me look good, and I`ve never forgotten that. So you have to be very careful.
How often are items that you print picked up by others without credit?
You know, what made me write this book was I looked in so many indexes and saw so many of my items, I thought, why don`t I write my own book? It happens periodically. It`s the old rip and read syndrome that we always accuse broadcast media of doing with regard to being a newspaper man and what you write. We`re always in the trenches, unlike a lot of broadcast reporters. We do all the writing for the most part. And so I think it not only happens to me, it happens to other journalists on a daily basis. Some try to make an extra effort to give you credit, but other times -- I think once they read your story, this is kind of the practice now, they can call up the Clintons or whoever we`re writing about, corroborate what you wrote, and then they don`t have to quote you.
You tell a story about Senator Bob Byrd going to the White House for dinner with George Bush. What`s that?
A very kind gesture on the part of George Bush. The first guests in the White House after he assumed the Oval Office from Bill Clinton happened to be a Democrat and his wife, Robert Byrd, the senior Democrat in Washington, D.C. today. I mentioned before he has outlasted so many presidents.
And Bobby Byrd and his wife -- I believe her name is Erma -- were invited by George Bush and first lady Laura bush to sit down for their first dinner in the White House. And as I said, not only was it a very kind gesture and reach across the aisle, but it was very telling, something Robert Byrd said after the dinner. When asked what impressed you most about this new president of the United States, and Robert Byrd said, "the fact that he said grace after a meal," after his meal, is what impressed him the most.
And I`m not sure if he was referring to the previous eight years and the lack of grace in the White House or not, but that definitely had an impact on Robert Byrd.
But you know, when I read it, I thought, it`s interesting, the quote here is "`I liked the fact that he said grace. He asked God`s blessing upon the food,` Byrd said. In many circles in this town and across the land, the word God, except in a profane use, is taboo. Don`t mention God." But then he went on, just a short time later, within a couple of years, to write a very critical book of George Bush.
So I wondered what difference did it make. I mean, because he clearly doesn`t like anything he`s doing.
Well, foremost, I think Robert Byrd is a politician, and he stands by the Democratic Party. And I think several things George Bush has done since then, or some of his policies obviously have not resonated with Robert Byrd. And as you say, he`s one of the most outspoken lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and there`s hardly a day that goes by that he doesn`t have something to say about President Bush and what he would do if he were in his shoes.
The title of the next chapter after that one was chapter 11, "`Splaining and Canoodling." Where did you get that?
"`Splaining and Canoodling." In fact, I think it was Orrin Hatch that wondered what canoodling meant, and it basically meant hanky-panky. And that`s the chapter that I devote to basically the Monica Lewinsky affair. And so many people in this country will recall that it was a very uncomfortable time for everybody, not just for President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but many of us, including the senior senator of New York. We`re suddenly explaining to our daughters and sons what some of these things meant. Children were talking about Monica Lewinsky. They all knew about this blue dress. Well, what was that on the blue dress? It was almost X-rated for several days.
As I pointed out, I even turned on ABC "This Week" with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, and they were grilling the guest about this blue dress stain and questioning, are you sure it wasn`t a guacamole stain? As I pointed out, it would have been difficult to even have a child watching television on Sunday morning and listening to this sort of thing, and to explain that there were other uses for cigars suddenly.
So it was a very embarrassing situation, I think, for everybody, including parents. I`ve got some firsthand accounts there of what came out of the mouths of innocent babes that their parents would write in and tell me about, just to give a flavor of what the country was going through at that time.
You have a list here, you said all told by one Republican count that the Clinton White House and two terms attracted 61 indictments or misdemeanor charges, 33 convictions, 14 imprisonments, seven independent counsel investigations, 72 congressional witnesses pleading the Fifth Amendment. I don`t need to go on. But when I read that, I thought, you could do the same thing with the Nixon administration.
Indictments and all this. What is it about this town that this kind of thing happens all the time?
Well, I think that goes back to the whole, you know, definition of what the “Inside the Beltway” label means. I think that the power can go to your head in Washington. I think that happens worldwide. You know, there`s some -- some say that the Bushes are a monarchy, similar to the British crown and throne in this country. They have one president follow another with the same name, but then I point out Al Gore had the same name as his father, and his father was a very well known politician. So is that the reason they`re there? Well, probably most likely. It was a great stepping stone for them.
But, you know, power is very important. I think that was one excuse that Bill Clinton used with regard to Monica Lewinsky being attracted to him, any young woman they said would be attracted to somebody of such stature. And this is obviously the seat of government and power in this country, so this is where it happens, and this is why I have so much fodder on a daily basis to report.
Where do you physically do your writing?
I do my writing in Washington. We have our office here on New York Avenue. We have computer terminals on Capitol Hill and the White House for our White House people. We have bureaus throughout the area, like most newspapers do as you get out into the surrounding suburbs. And in this day and age, it`s very comfortable for me to do a lot of my writing out of my own den at home.
How often does somebody call you from any administration or source and say, here`s an item for you? But when you print it, I will deny it.
You asked me what one of my biggest exclusives was, and that happened. Neal Sher was the head of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department back when I was covering Justice, and I was the first reporter in the United States to report that they were about to find Josef Mengele, the most wanted Nazi war criminal`s, body in Brazil, and I had basically bugged Neil Sher for months, because we had some rumblings that they were close to doing this. And he finally called me up one day after telling me nothing for months, and, you know, what were the chances that they would find this man after 40 some years on my beat the second I took it over? Well, they weren`t very good odds, and I was stunned when he called up and said, do you like Chinese food? I said, of course. We went down, we had lunch in a Chinese restaurant. We talked mostly about newspaper work. He had a son who was interested in being a newspaperman. I thought, oh, this was the point of this lunch. And I said, I can`t go back to the paper without a story. And he said...
One of the things you say for people that watch this network, Arnaud de Borchgrave was pushing you on this story for years.
Yes, a very insistent editor, who -- a great World War II veteran. He`s covered countless wars as a war correspondent, and as I pointed out, he never gave up the search for Nazi war criminals.
We were pulling dozens of them out of cities like Cleveland and off of farms that have come to the United States to live ordinary lives, and deporting them back to face charges after all these years.
And Arnaud wanted the biggest of them all, which was Josef Mengele. And I went back, wrote the story up that Neil Sher gave me, that the trail has gotten hot. He denied saying it the next day, so that precisely is what happened.
And I felt terrible. UPI immediately wrote a dispatch over the wires saying despite what John McCaslin had written today, the trail is cold. Well, there`s not anymore bigger denial than that by Neil Sher, and within one hour, another bulletin crossed out of Sao Paolo, Brazil, that they had unearthed what they thought was Josef Mengele`s remains. And I was on the next plane with Neil Sher, who was ignoring me all again, but it turned out that it was his remains.
Most of the time you don`t hear the full story. Does Neil Sher know that you`re talking about the fact that he didn`t tell you the truth?
Yeah, he did tell me the truth, but I think he kind of figured it out after a couple of days, that the way I wrote it that I realized -- in retrospect, he`d done me a wonderful favor.
But again, the question, how often do people plant stories with you and then later on, the administration denies it and you know that it came from inside the administration?
Well, not only me, but "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" frequently have this happen. Like us, they have a huge readership. Administrations will often -- we use the word float, float a story, just to see what kind of reaction they are going to get. It might be a policy initiative that they`d like to propose, but they`re not sure whether they should do it. Is the climate right to do this at this time? They will give you a seed; you will put the seed in your column or you will put the seed perhaps on the front page of your newspaper, and obviously the broadcast media will then pick it up. They will gauge the reaction.
Hey, if it`s not going to go, if it`s not going to work based on that reaction, because the Democrats or the Republicans are shouting about it on Capitol Hill, it didn`t come from us.
One of my favorite stories, George Bush was tired of administration officials within his White House speaking on background, and he issued a memo, which I write about in the book, this was less than a year ago, saying there will be no more stories out of the West Wing if the person stating or giving the story to the reporter is going to be quoted as an unnamed administration official. And my source was an unnamed administration official. So I had a double story there.
You paint a picture about George Bush, I don`t know that I`ve ever seen that before, about him being a gopher for Senator Ed Gurney of Florida? Where did you get that?
You know, it comes from a gentleman who is often mistaken for Ted Turner, who`s the president of the 60-Plus Association here in Washington. And he hired George Bush right out of college for his first job, which was on Gurney`s campaign in Florida, to basically herd the reporters on and off the airplane and into their hotel rooms, similar to what we have right now today when you travel with the White House. You always have aides with you that represent the president and help you on and off the buses, and what have you, and George Bush did this. And he apparently did a pretty good job because Gurney got elected.
What do you think of him, George Bush, and what did this fellow think of him?
He thought he was a good campaign worker, and perhaps he could follow in his father`s footsteps. And by golly, he did.
How much did the FBI plan your life? And did you ever know J. Edgar Hoover?
I met J. Edgar Hoover on several occasions as a young man. In fact, the day I took over the Justice Department beat, I requested an interview with Ted Olson, who was one of the assistant attorney generals, because he had Hoover`s old office. And the only reason I wanted that interview was to go in and see Hoover`s office again. I never told Olson that.
And my father was an FBI agent for 37 years under J. Edgar Hover. My mother worked in the FBI for several years. That`s how she met my father, before she went over to become the parish secretary and help me on my career path. And, you know, there wasn`t one night you wouldn`t come back from school and dad would come home from work that you didn`t hear a great story about J. Edgar Hoover or something going on in the FBI.
Did your dad like Mr. Hoover?
Very much so. He`s one of those agents that has stood by him, as has Deke DeLoach, who was number three under Hoover, just beneath Clyde Tolson, who has written a book in defense of J. Edgar Hoover, and a lot of the allegations that have come out since then, from racism to homosexualism to things like that, as well as somebody like Ray Wannall, who I write about in my book, another friend of my father`s, who also wrote a book in defense of J. Edgar Hoover.
Where did you meet your wife?
I met my wife at the White House. She was an intern. She was one that did land an internship and was there covering the visit, I believe, of the Turkish government and their leader to the White House. And I think as a favor, the head of the PR firm said, well, why don`t we let her go over. And I laid eyes on her over there while covering President Clinton -- or President Reagan, and we were married 13 months later.
What do you have that you want to do in this business before you get out of it? I assume you have a few years left.
Well, you know, if you ever relinquish your seat, I admire nobody more than Brian Lamb here in Washington. As I write about in my book, which is not why I`m here today. I don`t want to say there`s anything unethical about this interview. But I do enjoy broadcast. I`ve always enjoyed radio. Perhaps a radio show. But I think I will always write. There`s nothing more important than the written word.
Our guest has been John McCaslin. This is the book, called "Inside the Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops and Shenanigans From Around the Nation`s Capital." We thank you very much.