David Broder, 668 pages on something called "The System," with a capital T H E. What is it?
Well, you might ask why would anybody want to read a book that long about the fight over a bill that never even came to a vote, the health care reform effort of '93 '94. Actually, what we're talking about in this book is not health care policy, on which Haynes Johnson and I claim no expertise. It's a political book. It's about how our system of politics and government operates or doesn't operate these days.
Well, does it operate?
It fails too often for us to take much comfort in it. I've been covering politics for a very long time, and as a journalist, not as a partisan, I have a stake in wanting to see this political system of ours work. When we took the health care issue as an example, it was because in 1993 it appeared to be obvious to everyone -- Republicans, Democrats, Independents, with people in labor, in business, in government -- that our health care system was in serious trouble and that something needed to be fixed. It was eating us up with its costs. There were millions of Americans who didn't have basic health insurance. There was a pretty broad agreement in the country that we needed to address that question and, obviously, President Clinton had made it a major promise in his 1992 campaign.
So we began looking at what the government and the political system was going to do with this problem. We had no idea when we began whether we were going to be chronicling a triumph or a disaster. It turned out for Clinton and the Democrats and, I think, for the country to be more of a disaster and, unfortunately, that's not the only issue on which government has failed to do something the people expected it to do.
How did you and Haynes Johnson divide up the work?
Well, Haynes and I have worked together for a very long time, first at the old Washington Star, when it was in business, and then for many years at The Washington Post. We had collaborated on lots and lots of newspaper projects, so we were very accustomed to sharing each other's reporting notes, to writing drafts and passing them back and forth, and basically that's what we did with this book. Many of the interviews we did together. When the effort reached Capitol Hill, I did most of the reporting on the House side, and Haynes did most of the reporting on the Senate side, but we were back and forth on both sides of the Capitol, and both of us were talking to people in the administration and in the interest group community.
What we did at the outset, Brian, was to make arrangements, work out, and if you will, deals with many of the people who were clearly going to be important players in this whole process, from the administration, the White House, the departments, Republicans, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol, and many of the people in the interest group community, where we would come talk to them regularly and debrief them about what was going on, and personally how they felt about what was going on, with the idea that these transcripts -- because all of the interviews were taped and then transcribed -- would be saved, and we would be writing about this retrospectively, not at the moment that we were interviewing them.
What do you include in “the system?”
What we mean by “the system” is the political parties, the interest groups, the press, and the formal agencies of government, both the executive and legislative branches.
You started your book out by giving us a behind the scenes look at the famous TelePrompter glitched speech of President Clinton. Why?
Because it seemed to capsulize so much of what was right and what was wrong about this whole effort. If you look back on it, it almost seems to tell the whole story in microcosm. What happened on the evening of September 22 was...
It's 1993. This is eight months after President Clinton has been inaugurated. He has promised, initially, to have a health care proposal ready within the first 100 days, and the task force has labored and tried to get it ready and, in fact, has something done within 100 days, but by that time he is enmeshed in the battle of the budget, trying to save his basic budget and economic plan, so they tell the people who are drafting the health care plan, “Cool it. Just keep it to yourselves. We don't want any leaks about health care policy that could screw up what's going on in the budget thing.” So from May until September, just like in the song, the health care people, led by Hillary Rodham Clinton, are sort of there, impatiently twiddling their thumbs, waiting their chance to get their issue out on the agenda.
So finally, on September 22, 1993, the president comes up before a joint session of Congress, where he is going to kick off the effort for health care reform. First of all, the speech is something that is constantly being rewritten and rewritten and rewritten again in the White House because the president and Mrs. Clinton are not satisfied with what they have. Huge backstage frantic battles going on, last minute changes being penciled into the speech, if you can imagine it, in the limousine taking the president up to Capitol Hill. Because it's all so last minute, they need to get the speech into the TelePrompter for the president to use when he's delivering it, but they don't actually have the text of speech. So the signal corps technicians who actually run the TelePrompter up for the president -- up when he goes up to do one of these speeches, they want to rehearse and be sure that all of the equipment is working right. So since they don't have the actual speech, they load in the speech that he had given seven months earlier, his economic policy speech, into the TelePrompter. They check out all of the equipment. Everything seems to be working.
Then at the last minute the White House aides come rushing in, saying, “Here's the health care speech.” Well, unfortunately, they hadn't purged out that earlier economic speech. So when they load in the health care speech, it goes not at the top, but at the bottom of page after page of economic policy speech from the previous February. So the president gets up onto the podium, looks at the TelePrompter, turns around to Vice President Gore, and says, “They've got the wrong speech in the TelePrompter.” And he told us when we interviewed him in the Oval Office -- we said, “What did it feel like?” He said, “I thought God was testing me.” He said, “I thought maybe he was sending me a message that I was not supposed to be doing this.”
It took them seven minutes to get the thing straightened out and for that seven minutes he was literally winging it on what he himself said was probably the most important speech, at least up to that point, in his presidency. One of the other casualties, Brian, of this frantic last minute scramble was that he didn't have the large type reading copy that they usually prepare, so he's looking down at a little bit -- you know, typewriter size script but he had worked on the speech so well and so thoroughly and so hard that he was basically able to wing it for seven minutes until they got the right speech up in front of him. We tell the story at the beginning of the book because it capsulized so much of what was right and what was wrong. He really was imbued with this message, and he had this sense of mission about “Now is the chance, finally, for this country to provide a guarantee of health care for all its people,” something that presidents as far back as Theodore Roosevelt had tried to do, and a message that had been at the heart of the Democratic Party for 60 years when he came to office. But in the actual execution of it, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and that turned out to be the story of the whole health care effort.
You say that -- as this speech was going on that Stan Greenberg was out in Dayton, Ohio, I believe I remember, with the Dial Group.
Well, Stan Greenberg was the president's pollster, and this is a White House -- not unique, but certainly characteristic of this White House -- that everything they do, they poll on, before, during and after. And he was polling on the reaction to the president's speech as it was being given -- had a room full of people, average citizens, cross section of Americans, sitting there with these little sort of joysticks like you use on a computer game in their hand. When they liked something, they turned the dial this way; when they didn't like what they were hearing, they turned it the other way. And he was relaying the scores that the president was getting to another White House aide, Rahm Emanuel, who was set up with a long distance phone right in the cloakroom off the floor of the House of Representatives. So when the president came off the podium, he could turn to Rahm Emanuel and say, “How did I do?” and there was the score. He did very well, by the way.
Do you think -- when the American people learn all this kind of, you know, things going on behind the scenes, what's their reaction going to be?
Well, I don't know. When we wrote the book, what we did not want to do was write another book -- there have been a lot of them -- that said “This system is really screwed up; there's no reason for you to think that it's going to be able to solve any of the country's problems.” We wrote -- ended up writing about two failures, which we didn't know. One was Clinton's failure in '93 '94 to bring his health care reform plan to the point where it could be voted on. The other was the Republicans' failure in 1995 -- because we carried the story forward till really the beginning of this year -- to make their effort to try to find ways to save and reform -- find savings and reform Medicaid and Medicare, the two largest government health programs, which also failed to come to fruition.
Despite that, what we hope people will take away from this is a better understanding of where the choke points are in this system of ours, because if you understand what the system can do and can't do, if you understand what some of the roadblocks are to effective action, then I think we learn from that and can go forward. I'm not a pessimist myself about this country's prospects. I think we have the capacity to deal with the kind of problems that we face in this country, but it's hard in this kind of a system of politics and government, and we tried to tell, not through our own eyes as much as through the voices and the experiences of the people who are actually in this struggle, what it is that makes it so difficult.
Of all the people you talked to in this experience, who surprised you up close?
Well, a number of people. You know, I've been covering Congress since the middle of the Eisenhower administration, which really sounds like sort of Paleozoic times now, and I thought I knew a lot about how Congress operated, but it's different when you go back and do this kind of retrospective reporting where you say to people, “Now that you've finished the markup in the Ways and Means Committee, I'd like to try to understand what was going on in the caucuses there.” Because I saw what was happening publicly, but I wasn't, obviously, in those closed door meetings. “This is not for use immediately in The Washington Post. This is for a book that, if you will, is an effort at history of this thing, and I'd like to know through your eyes what was happening in those closed door caucuses.”
That's a different kind of reporting from what I had done in the past, and there were any number of surprises: Very prominent committee and subcommittee chairmen who were nominally trying to move this process forward, but were actually so opposed to what the president of their party had offered that they were quite willing to see it sabotaged. That came as a surprise to me.
One of the great surprises, I think to both Haynes and me, came when we were talking to speaker -- now Speaker Gingrich, then House Minority Whip Gingrich, who said that he had a conversation with a close friend and adviser in 1991, a full year before Bill Clinton was even nominated for the presidency of the United States. And in that conversation, they were talking about, you know, what's over the horizon? And Mr. Gingrich said to us, “We decided that the next great offensive of the left” -- that's his phrase -- “would have to be health care.” That was where they would have to try to mobilize the resources, bring them into the government, if they were going to try to expand their grip on the middle class constituency of the country.
And he said, “Realizing that, we knew that whatever it was that Clinton proposed, we had to defeat, because if we had allowed it to succeed, then the Democrats would have, as they did with Social Security and Medicare, lock a whole large constituency of Americans into believing that their health care depended on having friends running the government.” That was an astonishing statement to both Haynes and to me, that he had figured that out far enough in advance, and that he was tough enough to make that the driving force in the whole Republican opposition to the Clinton plan.
You report on a private conversation that Senator Jay Rockefeller had with, among other people, Hillary Rodham Clinton, where he -- well, you can explain it in your own words, but he basically was angry?
He was very angry. This is now about the end of 1993, three months after the president has made the address, gotten the thing well launched, but in the meantime, the president's also been trying to get the NAFTA trade agreement -- free trade agreement passed. He's trying to help Vice President Gore launch the reinventing of government. He's doing the Brady bill and 20 other things, all of which were on the White House agenda at the same time. And Senator Rockefeller, who was -- I'll put it mildly, an ardent champion of health care reform, goes to his friend, the first lady, and said, “You people are screwing up. You don't have an organization here at the White House that is focused on what has to be done to persuade the country and the Congress to pass this legislation. You have to get your act together or nothing is going to happen here.”
And he kept -- if I remember right, didn't he want Harold Ickes into this thing?
He kept urging them to find somebody with political smarts who could pull this thing together. Mrs. Clinton had worked primarily with Ira Magaziner in developing the health care proposal, and Mr. Magaziner, to his credit, recognized that he was a policy person, but not a political person, not somebody who could manage this on Capitol Hill. And Rockefeller kept saying to the White House, “Who are you going to get who's going to focus on this and getting this through the Congress?”
And he suggested Harold Ickes, whom he had known through the campaign, and who he knew the Clintons felt great comfort with as somebody who was a skillful operative. Ickes was doing other things in New York -- running a mayoral campaign -- and he had some doubts about whether he even wanted to come to Washington to take on this kind of a challenge. In the end, in January of '94, the Clintons persuade Ickes to come down, and the first day that he is in the office, he finds that, instead of working on health care, he is struggling with this great humongous mess called Whitewater, and was distracted by that from beginning to end of the year.
You point out that Mr. Ickes knew Washington pretty well before he got here, and if you were reporting back there during the Eisenhower years, can you tell us who his father was?
His father was a fellow Chicagoan, a grand man called Harold Ickes, an independent Bull Moose progressive who Franklin Roosevelt brought into his Cabinet as secretary of interior, where he raised hell every single day with others in the administration. His son, who was born when the Cabinet member Ickes was quite an old man, very different personality -- quiet, reserved. In many of the crucial meetings about health care policy, this Harold Ickes said virtually nothing, kept his judgment to himself, and then would whisper in the president's ear about what he thought should be done.
Chicago was how long in your life?
Well, I grew up in a town just outside Chicago -- it's south end of Cook County, called Chicago Heights -- and basically lived in Chicago the first 21 years of my life, until I went into the Army. Went to high school, through high school in Chicago Heights, and then went on to the University of Chicago on the South Side, and then went from there into the Army.
What did your parents do?
My dad was a dentist, and my mother was what I guess we now call a homemaker. She worked in a factory during World War II, when they were looking for people to fill in for the people who were off, men who were away in the Army, and she worked in a factory during those years, but then came back and managed the household. My dad was a dentist at a time when people didn't have much money to pay the dentist, so he did most of his work on a barter basis, and I tell my kids this now, and they can hardly believe it because their own experience with dentists is so different, but he was there whenever anybody wanted to show up. He'd have an early supper, and then he'd go back to the office, keep the office open, you know, from 6:30 until 9:00 in the evening in case anybody had a toothache and needed to find a dentist.
Is he still alive?
No. Both my parents have died.
What did he think of you getting into the journalism business?
He thought it was pretty dumb. There had never been a newspaper person in our family, and there was no reason to think I could -- and, actually, my own -- I knew that I enjoyed working on newspapers. I'd started in high school, and I knew it was fun, but I assumed also that, you know, at some time I'd have to grow up and get a real job.
Now this is a tough question for you to answer maybe, but when did people start calling you the best political reporter, especially in the journalism business, in the country? “The Dean.”
Well, I can tell you when they started calling me a dean, which is when I lost my hair and what was left turned white. I was very flattered the first couple of times somebody referred to me as “The Dean,” and then a friend of mine said, “Broder, before you get too inflated, remember there's only one letter difference between being dean and being dead.” So that put it all very good and well in perspective.
Do you remember, though, when that started?
Oh, I don't know. I mean, I'm 66 now, and I look every year of my age, so I expect it was probably, you know, at least 10 years ago.
And do you know why? I mean...
I became “The Dean”?
Yeah, but what is it that you do that people all of a sudden said, “There's the best political reporter in the business”?
Well, I don't know that any large number of people believe that. I certainly don't believe it myself, but what's been unusual, I think -- there are a few others who've done the same thing -- is that I have stayed essentially in my little rut of covering politics for a very long time. The Post understood that I was incapable of managing my own desk so I shouldn't be managing other people, and they've left me be a reporter, and that's been lucky, and I've enjoyed the political beat. I don't find it gets boring with the passage of time.
When did you have time to write a book like this in the middle of all the other stuff that we see you do?
Well, I was one of the people at The Post who was covering this health care battle for the newspaper in '93 and '94, and then I took about six months off in the first half of '95 and worked full time with Haynes on writing the book, and we got the bulk of the book written by the middle of that year, and then decided, because the Medicare and Medicaid fight was going on so hot and heavy on Capitol Hill in 1995, that we should delay the publication. We'd originally planned to publish in the fall of 1995. We decided -- our editor, Jim Silberman, at Little Brown really suggested this, and I think he was right, that we ought to carry this story forward through '95 to round out the picture of what happened when the Republicans tried their hands at dealing with the health care problem.
What did you study at the University of Chicago?
The undergraduate college was a strict, straight liberal arts program. The president of the University of Chicago then was a fellow named Robert Maynard Hutchins, who believed that there were, you know, a set of great books, classic writings over the centuries that educated men and women ought to be familiar with, and that, by reading those books and subjecting them to critical analysis in the classroom, you could learn to read anything critically and skeptically. It turned out to be -- Hutchins certainly never envisaged it as a training program for journalists; he had a very low opinion of journalists -- but it turned out to be a wonderful sort of education for journalists because a lot of what we do, as you know, is reading people's reports, speeches and so on, and it basically taught me how to read.
I started working on community newspapers in Chicago when I got out of school, and took some graduate courses in political science and economics there, and ended up getting a master's degree, but truth is, I did not belong in a graduate school program. I was not a serious student. I was already pretty addicted to journalism by that point. So most of the education I think that was useful to me and that I've relied on I got as an undergraduate at Chicago.
Where'd you go after you got your master's and after you did the community newspapers?
Well, I went in the Army for a couple of years during the Korean War, and after I got out of the Army, I got a job on the Bloomington, Illinois, Pantagraph, a fine paper, then about 40,000 circulation in a city in central Illinois and covered two counties for the state desk, Livingston and Woodford county, basic courthouse beat and feature stories. We carried those big heavy speed graphic cameras along with us because the paper didn't have a separate photo staff so a big day was a day when there was a car wreck on Route 66 and you got there before the victims had been removed from the car wreck.
The only thing that turned out in retrospect to be unusual and advantageous about that beat was that the county seat of Woodford County is Eureka, Illinois, and Eureka, of course, is the home of Eureka College, the alma mater of President Reagan. And he would come through quite frequently. He was then working for General Electric. There was a GE plant in Bloomington and Reagan would come in, talk to the workers and the executives in the GE plant and then go up the road to Eureka and talk to the college students.
So I started hearing Reagan's speeches. This was -- get the years right -- this was '53 to '55, and when he came back in our lives as governor of California and presidential candidate and president, I was hearing some very familiar lines. I mean, one of the great things about President Reagan was when he had a line that worked he kept using it. It stayed in the repertory. So that was fun.
When did you marry?
Married in 1951, the same year I graduated and went in the Army.
Where did you meet your wife?
At the University of Chicago.
How many children did you have?
We have four grown sons now and six grandchildren. The wonderful thing is that all of our kids were boys and five of the six grandkids are girls so we've been very lucky in the next generation.
Any of your sons get into this business?
One of them, Matthew, the third son, worked on newspapers for a while after he graduated from Yale. But he decided pretty quickly that he didn't want to be a spectator, he wanted to be a player. And he's worked both in state government up in Connecticut and now in private industry up there. And, I think, made the right -- he wrote very well and still does some writing in his job but I think he was wise to respect his own feelings -- you know, journalism is a very odd profession because it requires you to stand back from experiences that most people rightfully feel they want to be involved in. I was kidding a moment ago about those car crashes on 66 but, in fact, you know, when you came upon a car crash and you were a journalist, your instinct was take the picture and then get the story. That's not the normal human instinct. The normal human instinct is to pitch in and try to help. And there have been many times since then that I've realized that what you give up in being a journalist is that sort of human response and human connection. I felt it very powerfully. I happened to be on assignment for the Washington Star in Dallas on the day that President Kennedy was killed. Well, you know, that was not a story I wanted to deal with as a journalist but that's your job.
In the back you bring up "Profiles in Courage" ... about six senators you say, written by John F. Kennedy. Why did you bring that up in relationship to writing your book about the system?
Well, because one of the lines that President Kennedy used in that book, thinking back -- I'm sorry. I quote his line about “Victory has 1,000 fathers, disaster is an orphan.” But the reference to President Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage" comes in a section where we're trying to talk about some of the people in the system who, despite all of the pressures that were operating on them, showed themselves to be men and women of real courage who stuck to principle, who fought for what they thought was the right thing to do and resisted enormous political pressure to do otherwise.
Now you name a lot of people in this book. Is there any one person that comes out of this, in your opinion, as someone who really has principles?
Well, there is more than one. I guess two that are particularly appealing to me. One was a man that I knew quite well from his years as governor and a senator. The other is somebody that I did not know at all well.
First is Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, who had developed a powerful interest in people's health problems during the years that he was governor of Rhode Island. That's a state that's small enough that the governor gets to know a lot of individual citizens and what they're struggling with. And some of those struggles that Chafee encountered back then stayed with him and made him a passionate advocate for trying to bring more people into the health insurance system. He kind of pestered Bob Dole to create a task force on health care reform back when the Bush administration didn't seem to be very interested in the issue, led it for many years, and under just unbelievable pressure from many in his own party and ultimately his own leader, Senator Dole, to abandon the effort and to hand President Clinton a real political setback. John Chafee fought and worked till the last possible day.
The other person, a man I did not know at all well, was Bob Reischauer, who was at the time this battle was going on the director of the Congressional Budget Office, a classic, professional civil servant. And Reischauer, because the CBO scoring was so critical to what was going to happen to the health care proposals from all camps, Reischauer was just beat about the head and shoulders constantly by politicians to trim on his estimates of the cost of their programs, on the workability of their programs. And we tell the story in the book about a meeting that he had after one particularly tough session with Senator Ted Kennedy, who called him on the phone and really chewed him out for what he thought -- Kennedy thought Reischauer was going to do to damage the prospects of the Clinton plan being accepted. And Reischauer meets with the leaders, the other top professionals in the Congressional Budget Office, and said, “Look, I want you to know that if we include this chapter that raises lots of questions about the thing, it may be politically impossible for us to continue. Congress may retaliate against this non partisan budget office that it created to serve itself because many of the powerful leaders in this Congress don't want to hear bad news. What should we do?”
And he asked for a secret ballot vote among the top professionals in the Congressional Budget Office as to what they should do. And unanimously they said, “Keep that chapter in there. If we lose our integrity and lose our reputation for being honest in our assessments, there's no point in having this kind of operation.”
You wrote the following near the end in the chapter Lessons, Lost Opportunities. “The task force joke about living on “Planet Ira” contained a hard truth. Many in the White House said of the reform group, quote, "They're so smart, let them figure out how to pass it."' Who's planet Ira?
Well, we're talking here about Ira Magaziner, who was the business consultant from Rhode Island who came down, joined Hillary Clinton as the staff director of the presidential task force that put together this proposal. Ira is, to me, a very appealing and, in ways, almost sad sort of figure. He's extraordinarily bright, has an amazing retentive mind and the ability to deal with policy issues of a complexity that boggle my mind. He is, by his own admission, quite lacking in human relations skills. And he found himself in a situation where he became sort of the symbol to critics of the plan on Capitol Hill and in the administration, both Democrats and Republicans, for everything that they disliked about this project. The president made a critical decision when he decided that instead of using the normal bureaucratic process to put together a policy proposal he would bring the process inside the White House and put his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his good friend, Ira Magaziner, in charge of the process; because that meant that whatever they came out with and he approved, his fingerprints were going to be all over it and it made it very, very difficult for him then to negotiate for serious substantive changes in that design.
By the way, how did you and Haynes Johnson divide up the chapters or did you write the whole thing together?
No. When we started writing, we basically did, you know, the chapter outline of the book and said, “Well, I'll, you know, take a swing at the first draft on this one.” And then the drafts went back and forth to the point that it's very hard, even for us now, to remember who wrote which paragraph into which draft of which chapter.
Did you write on a computer?
Were you able to switch back and forth and...
Yes. We had discs and we had a wonderful research assistant named Elise Farren, who knew the computers better than we did. So she managed to keep everything working technologically.
This is a couple of sentences I want to read you about how you two got to this point. “But at no point, we believe, has the cumulative assault on the idea,” in italics, “of responsible government been so destructive of the very faith in the democratic system as now. A thoroughly cynical society, deeply distrustful of its institutions and leaders and the reliability of information it receives, is a society in peril of breaking apart.” How close are we?
Well, I think there's great resilience in this country. We've come through some much tougher times than we face right now. What's disturbing about this particular period is that so many of the American people have come to believe that their government has been captured by alien forces. And what we've tried to say in this book "The System" is, “Yes, there are powerful interests that are operating in the system that distort and deflect the course of public policy,” as I think has happened in health care for many, many years. But there is also a way to remedy those faults that is built into our system of government: that an informed public which really knows what it wants to see accomplished can put pressure on its representatives to do the right thing. I also hope we've conveyed the message in this book that for all the pressures that operate on people inside the system, there are still a lot of politicians who are in there struggling to do what they see as the right thing almost every day.
You criticize the journalism world and you say -- “today's journalism geared to the reality of a fleeting public attention span, looked at the issue and threw up its hands in horror.” Why is the public's attention span so fleeting?
People lead pressured lives. It's tough to balance the demands of a job or two jobs in families where there both father and mother are working, with the responsibilities of parenthood and the human need for a little time off to enjoy yourself and have some recreation. And people, I think, understandably feel that what's happening off in Washington is not something that they can take the time to master. The difficulty is that our system of government does not work where there is not a sufficiently informed public opinion to really drive the public policy process.
And what happened in '93 '94 and again from the other side in '95 was that the folks who had a political or economic interest in stopping action had the resources and the skills and the know how to create what Haynes and I essentially argue is a false public opinion. And the Republicans just basically scared the hell out of the country about the Clinton plan being, quote, unquote, "Government run health care," -- stopped it from happening.
In '95, the Democrats scared the hell out of the country about the Republicans, quote, unquote, "destroying Medicare and Medicaid" and stopped it from happening. It's easier for the forces now that want to put roadblocks in the way of dealing with problems to achieve their ends than it is for the people who are actually trying to solve the problems.
And the press's part in this thing, I think, Brian, is that we are struggling -- press, newspapers, as much at least, and maybe more than the electronic side -- how to capture people's interest and attention long enough to give them the information they need to make up their own minds. The saddest single fact about the press performance on the whole health care fight was that the longer it went on, the less people knew accurately about what the alternatives were that were being debated in Washington. Instead of public knowledge increasing, public knowledge actually diminished. And that's something that we, in all branches of the press, really have to come to grips with.
What's the difference in your personal, I don't know, satisfaction level from being a panelist on "Meet the Press" and doing one of your long series or a book like this?
Well, I'm a print person. I enjoy the interview work on "Meet the Press," I enjoy when I come on C SPAN. But I'm very clear in my head, I'm a print reporter. That's what I do for a living. I write columns that appear in papers around the country. But 90 percent of my workday is spent reporting for The Washington Post and that's the one thing I think I have some sort of notion as to what I'm doing when I'm doing that part of the job.
But when we see you on Sunday morning at the table there with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," you can watch your face and watch all of you move in on whoever the guest is and you react. Do you plan it out? Do you and Tim sit down and say, “You ask this, I'll ask this”?
There's a little bit of agenda setting, to this extent that we get together and have coffee a half hour, 45 minutes before the program goes on the air live and sort of go through the list of possible topics. Usually there are many more subjects that you could ask the guest about than you'll actually have time to do. So we talk, you know, what's most important and so on. Tim always leads off and he will generally tell the other questioners who are on the panel, “I think I will start with such and such. Where do you want to go from there?” So there's a general sense, sort of, of what the topics may be but nobody, you know, hands you a list of questions and says, “Here's what we want you to ask today.”
What's the worst thing somebody can say about the interview after it's over? They've watched an hour of "Meet the Press," you've been a questioner, what's the worst thing they can say to you?
Well, the thing that I hate to hear the worst is, “Why didn't you ask such and such as a follow-up question?” The only real skill, I think, that's involved in that kind of interviewing is to be sure that you aren't so focused on what the next question is that you may have written down on a piece of paper that you don't hear what the guest is saying because you want to hear what that guest is saying and pick up the clues and do for the viewers what they clearly want, which is to say, “Well, if he said this, why didn't you ask him about such and such?” That's what you really try to do.
Let me grab some sentences out of your book and just get you to, you know, elaborate a little bit. “Americans have learned from bitter experience not to take their presidents at their word.”
Well, that's hardly an original thought but it is sadly true. The term “credibility gap” I think came into the language -- I think was coined by a former Washington Post reporter named Murrey Marder and it came into the language during the Johnson administration in reference to Vietnam. And there've been enough instances since then when American people have learned, to their sorrow, that the chief executive was not exactly leveling with them.
You're talking about the system a couple pages later. You said that, “Congress disappeared long before Bill Clinton came to Washington. In the Senate, it was overthrown by television and by the new form of lone wolf entrepreneurial politics.” What did you mean by that?
Well, this really does go back a way. In the 1950s, senators like Estes Kefauver and then John Kennedy discovered that the Senate could be a wonderful launching platform for national political careers, that you could use committee hearings on television to dramatize issues. And the Senate, at that point, became much less the club that it had been before that. The members of Senate became much less involved with each other and with the daily task of legislating and much more concerned about using the Senate as a platform to raise their own visibility and raise the visibility in the whole country of particular issues that they were concerned about.
I'm reading again, “The most stunning fact about this entire effort is that when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and had in the White House Bill and Hillary Clinton, the two most knowledgeable and committed advocates of universal health care coverage in history, they failed over two years even to bring the measure to a vote.” And I'll go back and read that first paragraph. “The most stunning fact about this entire effort” -- why is that the most stunning thing?
Because I think it reflects -- I mean, the Democratic Party is 200 years old now. For a third of its entire history, that party has had at the heart of its platform the pledge to try to make health care a right for every American. This was a moment when they had a very talented president who was seized of this issue, understood it, did it very well, controlled both houses of Congress. And that party's failure to do that tells us something, not just about mistakes that Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton may have made but about, really, the collapse almost of political parties as institutions that can move issues on the country's agenda. What happened to the Democrats was very simple. There were so many of them that had their own notions about the best way to do this, which differed from the president's way, that they were unable to come to an agreement among themselves about a plan.
Now the other side of the story, I have to say is -- and we've told it, I hope, with equal force in the book -- is that the Republicans -- Newt Gingrich, from day one, and Bob Dole, as time went along, and others at different stages of the thing -- Republicans decided as a matter of party strategy that it was in their interest to thwart the president on health care reform and they were very, very effective in doing it.
“But there is no balance of power when business and its allies line up against organized labor, consumer groups and other liberal organizations.”
Well, you asked earlier about what surprised me about this. This reporting experience has totally changed my mind about sort of what serious political reform means. For most of the time I've been a reporter, the big focus of political reformers has been to try to limit the amount of private money going into political campaigns. I think this health care fight showed that you could take all private money out of our system and it still would not inhibit the kind of lobby and interest group organizations that were operating in this fight. They have moved so far beyond buying access to legislators through campaign contributions that they don't really depend on that anymore. Organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business, the Health Insurance Association of America have made themselves, in effect, political parties. But they're not parties that have a broad platform and they don't have a broad membership.
They have a narrow platform reflecting the interests of their particular constituencies. But they do everything now that political parties do. They run media campaigns, Harry and Louise on the Health Insurance Association of America. It's a brilliantly effective media campaign. They have their own field organizations. Indeed, NFIB -- Federation of Independent Business -- had more people out working the grassroots than either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party had working on the health care fight. They have become full service political parties and we need to understand that if we're going to be serious about talking on what would constitute political reform in this day and age.
You know, we start off talking about the TelePrompter at that speech. And in the middle of your book you talk about a fellow by the name of Larry O'Donnell and the pen...
...and the quote, "You will force me to take this pen...
...veto the legislation and then we'll come right back here and start all over again." How important was that moment in that speech when the president threatened to veto if he didn't get it all?
Well, we ought to -- Larry O'Donnell was Senator Pat Moynihan's chief of staff on the Senate Finance Committee, which meant that he was sort of the guardian of one of the major passageways to the floor for that health care legislation. He found his dealings with the Clinton White House mind boggling because it struck him that these folks did not understand the rudiments about congressional politics.
And the threat of a veto, which the president issued in his January 1994 State of the Union address, four months after it had begun was mind boggling to Mr. O'Donnell because it was so clear to him from his perspective on Capitol Hill that the only way anything would be passed would be through compromise and substantial compromise on the president's part. To hear him come before the Congress and say, “If you don't give me the bill that I asked for, I will veto it,” seemed to him to signal that, as he put it, that he was dealing with a bunch of amateurs down there.
You have this line in the book, “O'Donnell distrusted the Clinton planners, especially Magaziner.” That's Larry O'Donnell working for Pat Moynihan in the same party that Bill Clinton's in.
That is right.
How much distrust is there in this town among all these different people within the same parties?
A great deal. And you find the same thing, I think, true on the Republican side today now that they are in the majority in the Congress. There are fundamental disagreements between some of the more ardent reform types -- revolutionaries if you will -- in the House Republican Party and the compromisers, as they would put it, over in the Senate. And similarly, Senate Republicans look at those House Republicans and say, you know, “Those people are naive in their expectations.” So that intra-party difference is there on both sides.
What was so fatal to the health care reform hopes when the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress was that there was no one who seemed to be capable of pulling them together. Obviously there were different perceptions in this. But despite a really sort of heavy effort on the part of then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, they were never able to get the factions and the faction leaders in the Democratic Party to sit down and say, “Here is what we can take to the floor.”
And the story that we tell in the book, which really was told us by Tom Foley, then the speaker of the House, about to be defeated as speaker in his re election in Washington state. Foley said that the most maddening thing to him was that for a full month in the summer of 1994 when health care reform was hanging by a thread, he had to arbitrate over and over again jurisdictional battles among House Democratic Committee chairmen about the question of who was going to control this program in the future if, by some miracle, it was ever enacted. And that, I think, gives you some measure of how parochial and sort of inbred the Democrats had become at the end of that 40 year reign on Capitol Hill.
We only have about a minute left and I want to ask you, when did the president say to you, “I set the Congress up for failure. We made the error of trying to do too much, took too long and ended up achieving nothing.” When was that area?
That was in the summer of 1995, after the '94 election when the Republicans were already in control of Congress.
Where did you do that interview?
In the Oval Office.
How often did you sit down with the president for this?
That was our only interview with the president. We had several with Mrs. Clinton and most of the other key players in the administration.
How long total would you have talked, then, to Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton for this book?
Well the interviews with the first lady, several of them went for many hours. I suppose probably 12 hours in total.
And how about the speaker?
The speaker we talked to several times, but the most interesting interview came after the '94 election when he was speaker and not when he was operating as the minority whip.
You got another book you're ready to write?
Not at the moment.
Are you going to write that autobiography someday?
I don't think there's any great demand for that.
This is called "The System" and it's co authored by Haynes Johnson and our guest for the last hour, David Broder. We thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you