Jeff Greenfield, where did you get the title "Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow"?
Something that I had actually said Election Night. We had given Florida to Gore. The Bush people were on all the networks frantically trying to say, `This is t--premature,' for good political reason. Mary Matalin had just finished her explanation, and I said, somewhat dismissively I think, `Well, you know, it's true, Mary, that sometimes we in the media have to eat crow.' At that precise moment, Bernard Shaw broke into our conversation to say, `Hold it, hold it. We're pulling Florida back from Gore.' And I said the only thing that came to mind, in that first of the two wretched moments, `Oh, waiter, one order of crow.'
And when Neil Nyron, my editor, called to say, `I want you to do a book,' he said, `Look, I don't want to--I don't want a tick-tock. I don't want it--democracy deadlock. I want some humor, I want some self-deprecation, and here's your title.'
You buy the book, what do you get?
You get a couple of things. What you get--I'm a--I'll be a--modest enough to tell you what Publishers Weekly said you get. You get a very funny book that's also a--a detailed political analysis of what happened, not just election night and the days beyond, but how the 2000 campaign played out to get us to that point. So, in effect, it's like saying, `All right, I want to tell you what I think happened in this crazy year, but I'm going to make it as entertaining as I possibly know how.' There's a lot of rants in here, a lot of stuff that I did not feel I should say on television, but feel I can say now, just in terms of the--the sheer absurdity of some of it. That's what you get.
Why is it you can't say some things on television?
Well, because--because you--it's inappropriate, I think, to hear people doing spin--now it's perfectly appropriate, and I've done it a lot, on television to say, `Hold it. That's not what I'm talking about.' It's probably not appropriate to write a satirical version of what you think was going on in a stream-of-consciousness way. I think that's a little--that violates a civility code. It--you know, a few months later, you can look back and say, `You know, this was really some pretty outrageously insincere talking points that both sides were developing. It's just a matter of--I guess of taste and what's appropriate.
Who was insincere?
Everybody i--in the po--let's--let's start th--in--in the first post-election blush, within 48 hours, it struck me that both sides were picking up pudules of rhetoric and banging away, without any regard to its reality. The Bush people were saying, `No, that Palm Beach ballot was fine. It's just h--Palm Beach is a hotbed of support for Pat Buchanan.' Well, no. I mean, it's clear those votes--thousands of those votes--couple thousand were cast mistakenly. The Democrats were saying, `Well, we know what to do. Let's have a revote, or let's have a judge look at those ballots and allocate them to the guy, he must figure out, really meant to--to have those votes.' You can't do that.
So when I say `insincere,' maybe that's the wrong word. Maybe they were overzealous. But, clearly, neither of those arguments could really withstand, in my view, the cold light of day. This was not a case--k--Ted Koppel once did a whole show asking, `Where is Diogenes?' You know, if he was wandering around look--with his lantern. And my feeling is Diogenes would have had a very long walk.
This is a quote from your book: "A generation of jaded coverage had taught us to assume the worst of everyone in public life."
What are you talking about?
I'm talking about what, I guess, some people might call a post-modernist ironic view of politics, where nothing a politician or public figure says is to be taken at face value. Now they brought a lot of that on themselves, and traditionally politicians do. You can go back to Artemus Ward, not to mention Mark Twain, and see that politicians were held in--in minimum high regard.
But I--it's as if--if Harry Truman were announcing the Marshall Plan today, I think our coverage would be, `In a desperate effort to win the votes of immigrants from Europe, Harry Truman announced today.' It's--it's--we've gotten to the point where n--everything has to be scrutinized for a motive, almost certainly a bad one. Now up to a point that's fine. I mean, y--you don't want to take politicians at face value; you don't want to add credulity when some skepticism's appropriate. But the tone of not just coverage, but of late-night comedians, of the whole culture is that these guys, if they're not--if they're not fools, they're crooks; if they're not crooks, they're degenerates; if they're not degenerates, they're liars. So that's what I meant.
Can you put your finger on when this started?
I think it was a--a--it was a slow build-up, but certainly there are a lot of things. One of them, the con--the con--the--the--the conventional wisdom twins. I mean, Vietnam-Watergate, it's one word. But I think there are other things. I think, for instance, one of the more overlooked moments was Chappaquiddick, when a lot of journalists decided that maybe they had to start really looking at the personal lives of people, whose personal lives they had tended to say were none of our business.
I think--it may sound bizarre to you--but the feminist movement was part of this when they said `the personal is political.' And--and--and a lot of people s--you know, bought into that, as well as to the kind of analysis--I don't hold him responsible. James David Barber, the great political scientist, wrote a book called "Presidential Character" telling us that after Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, we really had to understand the character of public figures. And in the kind of distorted way that comes out in journalism, character generally means, `What are they doing sexually?' Or, you know, `Are they drinking too much?' I mean, I think Barber had a whole broader notion in mind.
So I think you throw those things together, and somewhere in that period, between, you know, the assassination of John Kennedy and--and the resignation of Richard Nixon, that--that jadedness, I think, congealed and--and produced a whole approach to talking about politics that--that may have helped below--to lower the voter turnout.
Chappaquiddick was '69.
What do you--where were you?
I was working for Mayor Lindsay at the time as a speechwriter.
In New York.
In New York.
What party was he in then?
He was then--well, he had just lost the Republican nomination for re--for renomination as mayor and was running as an Independent, and two years later, he would switch to the Democratic Party and attempt, quite unsuccessfully, to run for president.
You had, prior to that, in '67, been with Robert Kennedy.
In Washington as a Senate aide. And as things were then, with very different rules, when he announced for president, the Senate campaign's--the Senate staff moved over pretty heavily to the campaign staff. I believe the story was that we were all using our weekend and vacation time.
Why were you there? What--what motivated you?
I have been hooked on politics from childhood. I mean, when I tell people that I got hooked at the age of nine, they look at me as if I was somewhat weird, and maybe it is somewhat weird. But I think you probably have heard this story over and over again from people, including President Clinton, that you--you--I was nine. I wanted to listen to the Yankee game during the summer...
Where were you?
In Connecticut, my grandfather's cottage, with my mom--in Danbury, Connecticut. She said, `You can't listen to the Yankee games this week because there's this convention going on, Republican convention,' which, as you know, was a knock-down, drag-out, exciting, amazing event. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was this was amazing.
Now what year?
I was interested...
Eisenhower--Eisenhower or Stevenson?
Yeah. That's right...
It was the Republican convention.
And I--I just thought this was the most amazing stuff of all. I didn't--I remember to this day, and we're talking a long while ago, picking up a tabloid--New York tabloid newspaper up there, and the headline was: Boom On To Draft Stevenson. I didn't know what a boom was, I didn't know what a draft was, and I sure as heck didn't know who Stevenson was, but I just knew something was going on.
About your grandfather, your--your mother, what were their interests?
My parents were--my mom w--my--my parents were politically active. My dad was treasurer of the first reform Democratic club in New York to win a district leadership conference when Tammany Hall ran New York. They were New Deal liberals. They were also--my mom particularly was passionately anti-Communist. She'd gone to NYU, New York University, at a time when--when the schisms were defined by, you know, where you sat in the dining rooms, literally. You know, the Social Democrats were here. The Trotskyites were here. The Stalinists were here. The Roosevelt types were here. I don't know that there were any conservatives at NYU in 1938, so I don't know where they ate.
So I heard all these stories, and she was--she was--I remember coming home from school and watching the Armand-McCarthy hearings. I remember my father watching Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" documentary on McCarthy and, at that moment, getting out a typewriter and writing a letter to Edward R. Murrow saying what a great thing this was. So--so it was in the blood, it was in the home, and I got hooked. So the idea of going to work in Washington for Robert Kennedy in 1967 was intriguing.
Where had you been up to '67? In school and...
I was in--I was at the University of Wisconsin; got out in 1964, which was the last calm year at Wisconsin. I--I always claimed credit for keeping the lid on, but I have a feeling it was the escalation of the war in Vietnam that may have triggered stuff. I was editor of my college paper for a couple years; went to law school at Yale on a--on a scholarship. You know, you have to do that if you're in politics to point out the fact that you were of modest means, so I--in case--but it's true.
And I'll tell you what I learned, in retrospect. I was up for a Supreme Court clerkship, and I didn't get one. And I know that I was sufficiently hypnotized by the status ranking, because that's the best job you can get out of law school. I probably would have gone to a Supreme Court lerk--clerkship and turned down the Robert Kennedy job, and it would not have been a wise decision on any level. And so sometimes when I do commencement speeches or talk to students, I say, you know, `Do not get seduced by the status level of a job. Think what it is that will give you the most satisfaction, the most fun and where you want to be.' I mean, that would have been a lifelong regret.
When did you work on the National Lampoon?
In the mid-'70s. I never actually worked there. I was a contributing editor. So I would go over there and sit in on s--on these editorial meetings and then just go home and write stuff. I actually--somebody once pointed this out to me. One of the things I used to write for a long time in the mid- or late '70s was a parody of a pompous political analyst. His name was Elborn Whipit Jr. And, of course, he reflected the total conventional wisdom of whatever was being said. You know, one of his--`Perhaps you actually know some in Washington.'
And I've tried, although I don't know if I've succeeded, never to actually write like or talk like Elborn Whipit Jr. would once I actually started doing this for real.
Do you ever hear yourself, in the middle of a commentary, sounding that way and say, `Ooh, I've got to get out of this'?
I--I--yeah, I do. I sometimes find my--I sometimes can see I'm heading down a road that I don't want to go down because it's just going to sound really, really awful. And I'm--I'm very much attuned to not--to hearing the language that says, you know--there's like a red light th--I hope, that goes on that says, `We are, you know, cliche city.' I actually once said on the air, during last year's post-election--what--we don't even have a name for it--scrum, dust-up--that, `I haven't heard so much talk about uncharted waters since they canceled "Gilligan's Island,"' you know, 'cause that's what happens in--what happens, I do think, in political discussion is a phrase jumps out of your head or--or--or hits the public--and it--you--you can't help it. It's almost like a--like a--a verbal tick.
What do you hear before a presidential debate? You know, `It's important the candidates appear presidential.' This I know I have never said. `This is a defining moment'--this is also a phrase if you ever hear it, you just gotta send the guys in the white coats 'cause it's done. And I'm--I guess it's because I'm so conscious of having written s--d--derisively about this kind of language and, also, because my--my hero, journalistically, is George Orwell, who wrote in Politics and the English Language, about that--these--these phrases that sort of come preformed. And they--they're not only lousy phrases, they interfere with thinking.
Why George Orwell your hero?
Because he was a man who actually thought what--thought. You could see the thought process going on, and he never, never, never thought like the herd. This was a man of the left, a self-proclaimed Socialist, who spent much of his life writing about the hypocrisies and evasions of the left. He just was not going to take one for the team. If he heard `can't,' if he heard half-truths, if he heard evasive or hypocritical language, it didn't matter if it was "his side" doing it, he was not going to--he was not going to accept it. And I--his collection of journalism and essays and letters just shows a lifelong commitment to this.
I also think when I went back and read "1984," as a grown-up--because I think the first time I looked at the book, I looked at it because there was supposed to be a--a hot passage in there. It would not really qualify, in case you're wondering. I realized that "1984," which is not--no original, it was really about the corruption of language, how the party was stripping language of subtleties. So you would say, `Double plus on good' And--and I just realized this fellow was on to things so much earlier than almost anybody else. He also, by the way, wrote a novel about--"Radical Chic" about--oh, I don't know--25 or 30 years before Tom Wolfe came up with it. Smart guy.
Now we talked about a lot of things, but go back for a moment to the '67 Bob Kennedy association.
How did that happen?
I was in law school and...
At Yale. And this shows you where fate comes in. I wanted to get into a class, a seminar, and the--the teacher said, `We're all subscribed up, so show up and show me that you belong in this class.' So I--I mean, I was loaded for bear. I came to that class just--that was my finest moment as a student probably. They said, `OK, you can stay in the class.' A day or two later--turns out this fellow went to law school with one of Robert Kennedy's legislative assistants. So this guy was checking out, and he said, `What do you know about this guy?' `Oh, wow.' If he'd called two weeks later, I'm not sure the response would have been the same.
And they--they hired people right out of law school, who worked for a year as like kind of a junior legislative aide. I don't remember the name of it, legislative fellow, something like that. And so that's how I wound up with the job.
But why Bobby Kennedy? What was your interest in him?
Well, I'm su--it was a couple of things. First of all, you know, I assume, on sheer magnetism, he was a president in waiting from the time he entered the Senate, but there was a particular thing with Robert Kennedy. I hadn't--I--I don't remember whether--I was a New Yorker casting my first vote in 1964. I'm not sure I voted for him for senator because Bobby Kennedy was a guy who--who raised a lot of suspicions. You know, he was the real zealot. He was the ruthless guy. He was the--he was the Joe McCarthy lawyer.
But I remember, starting in '65, reading speeches of his in which he was maybe the first Democrat of this era to start challenging the liberal conventions. He attacked welfare. He said, you know, the public school system was failing these kids. `It's not enough to spend more money.' He was breaking with the kind of Great Society-Hubert Humphrey liberalism and making some very unconventional arguments. And I thought, `This guy is on to something.' By 1967, he'd broken with Johnson on the war.
You know, it's hard to tell this to our kids; that there was a period in this--not in my lifetime--when you would wake up and politics was at--was front and center, in--in the broader sense of politics. You know, war--were you going to be drafted? The country was--was divided by every conceivable way. And--and Kennedy just seemed to me a f--apart from the fact that he was the only guy I thought who could stop what was going on with Lyndon Johnson, he was--it was a--intellectually it was--he was really doing things that very few other senators did. So the combination was irresistible.
Now were you at Yale Law School. Did you leave it to--did you finish the...
No, no. I was at--no, I graduated. Never took the bar, but I graduated.
Now--n the--the--your mom--how about your dad? What was your dad?
My dad was a lawyer--a single practitioner lawyer in New York. I would say that--that, as I said, he--he was active in kind of grass-roots politics, literally, at the neighborhood level, you know, working to un--working to--against the Tammany Hall guy, who ran or dis--it wasn't like 1900. I mean, this was...
But what did it mean to be in Tammany Hall at that time?
Well, I mean, the Tammany--Tammany Hall was the regular Democratic organization, the people who--who were the heirs to the Littleton box--Carmine DeSapio. They picked the judges. They pa--they ran the patronage system. Their guy, Robert Wagner, was in City Hall. He ultimately broke with Tammany Hall and got elected by running against his own record, which is an interesting...
And you'd--have you instinctively been against the establishment, like the Tammany Hall?
This was my--if you're raised where I was raised, that's the--that's the sea you swim in. You know, you--but you can break. You can--you know, I've changed a whole lot politically in terms of what I think about things. But certainly as a kid, you grow up believing that Elean--you know, Roosevelt and--both Roosevelts--Franklin and Eleanor, are kind of the--two-thirds of the trinity and that, you know, you don't cross a picket line; you vote Republican if it's Fiorello LaGuardia and, later, John Lindsay. And there's a whole set of--of--I don't know--I don't know--even not sure that they're beliefs, they're kind of tropisms. I used to joke that--it's an inelegant joke, but I used to try to explain the Upper West Side of Manhattan by saying that, `In our neighborhood, we think the Rosenbergs should be given a federal pension.' Now that's--that's an exaggeration.
Yeah, our--our neighborhood meaning?
The Upper West Side of Manhattan, basically from Lincoln Center up to Columbia University west of Central Park.
What does that mean to somebody that's never been here and never...
It means it's a--it's a neigh--it's a neighborhood of people where--where cultural and political liberalism is ingrained. It's a neighborhood with a fairly large number of professionals, writers. It's--it's polyglot, less so now than when I grew up. It's become gentrified. So we had a wide disf--I mean, the--the public schools that I went to were on the edge of Harlem because we were up near Columbia. So it wasn't a rich neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood of immigrants, very heavily Jewish. You know, that that's a tradition where you--you--they brought Democratic Socialism over on the boat. Unionism, New Deal, Fiorello--all that stuff, which was what--was what we grew up with.
There actually was one junior high school in my neighborhood, not the one I went to, where the school board actually, honest to God, in the 1950s, was dominated by Communists, you know. They--you know, that's--that's an unusual experience, I think.
But your mom was a strong anti-Communist.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. She ju--she just thought--she remembered the Roos--the Hitler-Stalin pact and what it was like being in college listening to the Communist Party trying to figure out what it was going to say about this. And she had no truck wi--with those guys.
And you still live in this neighborhood today.
Yeah, I--I sort of wander from--in the last 30 years, I've moved 16 blocks. I love it. I mean, I--I am a city guy. I--I lived--I do spend weekends in a rural country thing, and that's fine and I like that, but...
W--without talking for the moment about some of your earlier experiences, then is it your dream that you're writing books about an election in 2000 and that you're a commentator with your own program on CNN?
It's pretty close. I mean, yeah...
Does it get any better, I guess.
No. Well, could it get any better? I--yes, if I'd had the skills, I would have--would not have minded starting out playing center field for the New York Yankees and then morphing into, saying, a rhythm guitarist with Dire Straits or The Band or Talking Heads. But neither of those career moves seemed likely. Failing those, th--yeah, this is--this is--this is what I--I think my mom and dad didn't think at the time that a Jewish kid could grow up to be president, but they did think that a Jewish kid could grow up to be working in politics.
And the way you put it is very instructive. I've--the line that I've used in--in talking to the next generation is if you want to be where you've got to be, that's the best working environment it could be. I don't care what it is, I mean, I--I do think that's true. You know, it can be, I don't know, whatever you want to be. But from the time I was a kid, I thought being able to think about politics and talk about it and write about it for a living, I--you know, is as good as it gets.
Then let me lead to this book and the two candidates, primarily, that you write about. Did you ever think in your lifetime that you'd have two candidates like George W. Bush and Al Gore and put them in context of the kind of people that you've known, you've worked for in your own life?
Yeah. I don't think--I think--I think both of these fellows could have been presidential candidates, say, 50 years ago. You know, people talk a lot about how television has--has changed politics at the root, and I'm--I think as you know, I'm--I'm a little bit skeptical about that. I mean, what is so weird about the son of a senator from Tennessee ascending through the ranks to become a senator from Tennessee, displaying at a young age a lot of ambition, a lot of intelligence and--and, over a long period of time, building alliances?
And, for that matter, Bush is a little different because he--he--he did do this in a much more accelerated fashion. But, again, he's the son of a president. You know, you know this better than I, we have a--we have a lot of politicians who get into the family business, you know, who's--you look at the--at the folks in the House and Senate and ask how many of them had fathers in politics, it's an astonishingly high number. I think--I think in Bush's case, it would be a little harder to predict going from a private citizen to president of the United States in six years. I think you've got to go back to, like, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson to find those examples.
But I don't--I didn't--I don't find those folks that far out of the mix. I do think that if you had told me, at the start of my life, `Someday you will see an election, not only where the popular vote loser gets elected, but where it takes a month and a half or so to figure out who won,' I'd have said, `That sounds like an implausible story to me.'
What was a--how well did you know Bobby Kennedy, and what was he like?
Well, you know, people--I've found that a lot of people in--in public life tend to exaggerate their relations with important people. I was 24 years old. I was a junior aide. Now it was a small Senate office, so we had interaction when I would--you know, my job, in part, was to write the less-significant speeches. Adam Walinski was his chief speechwriter, a brilliant, amazing fellow. Peter Edelman was his legislative assistant. I was--they were here, I was here. But I--you know, you--you only got about six or seven people on the whole legislative staff, so you see them and you talk with them. And he'll tell you, you know, `This was good. This was not.'
The thing about him that--there are two things about him that--that stay with me, and maybe some of this is first-experience youthfulness, the sheer astonishing intensity of that era. But Robert Kennedy was a genuinely unconventional thinker. He never, never, never took the first answer. And one of the first things that he did all the time was he would--he would reach down into the maw of how things were actually happening. I think for a lot of people, if they passed the Educational Reconciliation Act of 2001 and they--an appropriation went up 10 percent, that was a win.
First day I spent on his staff, I followed him over to some education committee. It wasn't even the Department of Education then. It was the office. And he had the head of it in front of him. And he said, `So let me ask you something. We've spent all this money the last two and a half years, first federal aid to education. Well, then what's happening?' `Well, it's early.' He says, `No, no. I mean, what's happening? Schools any better? Are they getting any better? Do you see where they're getting any better? How come the IQ of black kids in inner-city schools drops 20 points between the third and sixth grade? Why is that happening? What can we do about it?' So that's the part about him that I thought was striking and would have been striking even if he wasn't a Kennedy.
The other thing was he was actually shy, of the--of all the Kennedys. I think this notion, they all have the image of a Kennedy as you know, `I'm here. I'm tough. I'm b'--he was a little diffident. And the other thing was he was very funny. I mean, the--because of the way the '68 campaign ended, it's hard to remember this, but, I mean, he genui--he had a great sense of the absurd on the campaign trail. He had been through what he knew, for whatever reason, that a lot of this was for play, so he would--he would kind of play with an audience. He would--he would give this wonderful parody of a politician saying--he'd go to a farm state like--and say, `You have to vote for me. I have 11 children. I am your milk support program. You know, here I am.'
So there were these elements of him that made him a really fascinating fellow, beyond the fact that he was running for president.
Where were you the night, in June of '68, he was killed?
I was in the Ambassador Hotel, dressing, getting ready to go out to a victory party, and the phone rang upstairs and somebody downstairs said, `Something's happening. We think he's been shot.' And I think the thing about that that sounds, in some ways, awful, but you ha--but I think you can understand this, is people were horrified, people were devastated, people were not surprised.
Because it was at the--it was `the season of the witch,' if I can quote an old song of the era. You know, Martin Luther King had been killed six weeks before or eight weeks before. Violence was in the air. There was a kind of horrific almost expectation that somebody out there, you know, was going to tap into this--this dark period of time. The night--the only time I ever heard Kennedy mention Oswald's name was he--he came up to the room where Adam and I were working on some remarks--this is after that famous speech he gave at Indianapolis, that extemporaneous speech in the middle of the ghetto, one of the more amazing things that probably has ever happened in American politics. And he just said, `You know, that fellow Oswald just set something loose.' And he--he meant the whole way that the culture had--along with the war in Vietnam and other stuff, had, in the space of a couple of years, turned very dark.
I want to go back, because of the--that--that quote again, "A generation of jaded coverage had taught us to assume the worst of everyone in public life." We had the first Kennedy assassination, then the--Martin Luther King and now this one. And that's '67, '68. You're 25 and then soon to be 26, and that's when Chappaquiddick happened in '69.
How well did you know Ted Kennedy?
Not that well. I mean, I've worked with him on--ghost, you know, a couple of chapters of a book of his, but I--I did not know him particularly well.
Where were you the night that happened?
I think was over working...
Was it July of '69?
Yeah. I was in New York. You know what? No, I wasn't. I was in England. I was in England doing a--a--a tape of--I was a "Firing Line" panelist at the time, and he had taken the show to London. And we were off on what was going to be a fi--a first European vacation. So I was in--I was actually, now that I think about it, about several thousand miles away. And the reason I remember that is because Kennedy's speech and the moon landing were, like, a day apart, and I remember watching the moon landing from--from London. So I must have been over there.
Were you married then?
I was then married, yes?
Did you have kids then?
But why did you go back--go back to why you mentioned Chappaquiddick as the beginning maybe of all this.
Because--because I think Chappaquiddick dropped--or raised--I'm trying to think of the right verb--a curtain. There was a tradition--and you can argue whether it was healthy or not--that journalistic inquiry stopped at a certain point. There's a book about Lady Bird, just been excerpted by Connie Martin, where Lyndon Johnson early in his presidency is at, I think, the Driscoll Hotel, and he's talking to some reporters and he's saying, `Now you may see me coming out of the White House with a woman. It's none of your business.' And all the press said, `That's right, none of our business. We got that.'
When I--I remember going on the--one of the first times I went on the Senate floor, I saw a United States senator clearly drunk out of his mind. This is not--we're talking many sheets to the wind. Press gallery up there; nobody's writing about that. With Chappaquiddick and, to a much lesser extent, Wilbur Mills driving into the Tidal Basin and then Wayne Hayes employing the secretary whose talents were not secretarial, I think the press felt, you know, `We--we don't have this right.' There's a l--there this--there's stuff about these guys', quote, "private life" that isn't private, and I think that helped open a door and that, you know, what it also does is you start thinking back on some of the public figures in past years. And what would the public have felt if it had known about them what we now know?
And I think Chappaquiddick was one of those moments where the press fundamentally changed its approach. And then you add a couple of years later Watergate, on top of Vietnam, on top of the notion that it's the pri--that the character of these people may have terrible public consequences. That's the other part about this. The initial argument was, `If we'd known about Lyndon Johnson's overweaning insecurities, it would have told us that maybe he would have--he would have magnified Vietnam. If we'd known, really, about Nixon's paranoid feelings about his opponents, we might have guessed that Chappaquiddick would happen.' Now we might have been wrong about that. I mean, maybe we wouldn't.
Who--who are the--this is a cliche, but who are the good guys and the bad guys in the--in this time frame? Who do you--you look back on those years...
You know, I've re--I honestly--you mean politically?
Well, just who would you say, `That was a bad--that was bad'? I mean, was Ted Kennedy bad in this thing, the way he did it?
The way he handled it?
Oh, the way he handled it? It was terrible. I mean, it was just one of the worst public relations disasters, or maybe it goes beyond public relations. I mean, what happened was Ted Kennedy convened a bunch of advisers in Chappaquiddick, and then he wrote him this speech that was a group-thing speech that--it was as if he was trying to explain his on a--on an agriculture bill. I mean, it was--it--it was absolutely...
Who was there?
I don't know. I wasn't.
Wasn't Bob McNamara in that--involved in that?
I just--you know, I would tell you if I knew, but, blessedly, as I say, I was over in England, you know, waiting for the--but whatever happened, it wa--it was a bad--it was awful. And, you know, I do think it's one of the reasons why Ted Kennedy didn't unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Well, what about Lyndon Johnson? What do you think of him, looking back?
The--I think--I think Lyndon Johnson's character flaws would have doom--doomed his--doomed his presidency. And, in fact, I think it may have been David Broder--I don't want to say that for sure. Someone wrote a--a book years later in which he argued that Johnson's presidency would have failed even without Vietnam because of his own limits. I mean, this--look, this is a man who accomplished enormous things. The domestic programs, assuming that you like those domestic programs--he got more legislation through in a quicker time than anyone since Roosevelt. And I think part of Lyndon Johnson--and this is, I think, why Robert Parrow is just never going to get to the end of his book because he's so conflicted. There is a good and bad Lyndon Johnson that are kind of almost at war with each other.
But I do think the bu--that particular time, that is a time when the war was expanding and a time when the--when the--when a lot of that American life was unraveling in terms of generational and racial real divisions, he was not the right guy to be president then.
You mentioned Peter Edelman.
And there's another quote in your book--ju--jump 30 years ahead. He worked for Bill Clinton, had worked for Bobby Kennedy.
His wife, Marian Wright Edelman...
Marian Wright Edelman.
...close friend of Hillary Clinton's.
Founder of the Children's Defense Fund, for which Hillary worked, I think, in her first real job.
You write about Bill Clinton, `He demonstrated contempt for the office literally and symbolically.'
Yes. Well, I don't know that we really need to explain what I meant by `contempt for the office literally.' I mean, quite literally, it seems to me, we're saying something about your feeling about the re--your reverence for the Oval Office if you are willing to invite a, you know, young woman in to perform sexual services on you. I--I mean, that's exactly what I mean. There's no way to--there's no other way to put it.
Symbolically, I--I mean that beyond that, if--if you are--if--if you regard the Oval Office as your--as the place you can do pretty much whatever you want--and I would argue that it is--you know, I don't really know about Warren Harding's particular behavior, but I think--I think, particularly in this day and age, when you are so--when a president is so scrutinized, that--that that's what I mean; that apart from the literal act, it's also a broader way of saying, `You know, I don't--I--I don't look at this office in a way in which I--I'm the repository of all that it has meant. It's a playground for me, if I want it to be.' That's what I meant.
In fact, one of the things that I always asked during impeachment, because I was never particularly impressed by the perjury and lying--I mean, that's a--that's a legal matter. But I would ask Democrat after Democrat, `Can you not make the case that--that it is a--it is public misconduct to turn the Oval Office into the punch line of a dirty joke?' I mean, you want to talk about a generation of coverage in cynicism. There are White House tours that, if I remember right, when the president's not there, they literally walk right by the Oval Office. There's like a blue rope or a red rope, and you can look in, right? And, you know, there were--I'm sure there were times when parents or teachers would tell the kids, `This is where Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. That's where Roosevelt did the Four Freedoms. It's where Reagan thought about confronting the Soviet Union.'
What do you figure kids, the last couple years, looking in the Oval Office were thinking to themselves and each other? Now I don't know if that's an impeachable or removable offense, but it sure is an act, to me, of contempt for the Oval Office. And there's no--you know, that, to me, is not definable as a private act. It's something else. I think that's part of what Joe Lieberman was getting at in that Senate speech he gave. It's something else.
Let me ask you a--a somewhat leading question? Is Bobby Kennedy your high and Bill Clinton your low?
Bill Clinton's definitely not my low. He's a complicated fellow, and there are--there are, you know...
Who's your low?
You know, I d--I don't know that I've ever thought about that, but I'd have to. I, honest to God, don't know. You need to invite me back to think about that. Look, I think a lot of the people who played race politics throughout the '40s and '50s and really encouraged not just resistance to the idea of civil rights, but really fed on the worst kinds of hatreds ranked pretty low.
I mean your low in your lifetime. We've got Richard Nixon we haven't asked you about.
I've never thought about it, and I don't want to give you an off-the-lip answer. I'll tell you this. I think the most dangerous person we could have elected as president? How about that? It would have been Nelson Rockefeller because I think he genuinely believed that nuclear war was inevitable, and he built all the--he wanted to turn New York state into this network of fallout shelters. A president with that view, with nuc--with--with control over nuclear weapons, would have petrified me. I mean, that may seem a little weird to you, but that--I remember always thinking, `Thank God for the conservative Republicans who kept him out of the White House,' because I would have been really scared about that one.
Jeff Greenfield, in his lifetime: law degree from Yale, worked for Bobby Kennedy. How did you get into the "Firing Line"? At that--at that point, what would you...
Were you ideological?
No, no, but--well, yeah, I guess I was. I had just finished--Bobby Kennedy had just been killed. I was just about to start with John Lindsay as a speechwriter. And I'm laughing because this was 1968, six--late '68, and Hearst magazine s--decided they wanted to put out a hip, counterculture, youth-oriented magazine. Now the idea of Hearst putting out a hip, youth magazine's a little like Howard Johnson getting into high cuisine. But they had--one of the things they did was they invited three young people, one of which was then me, to sit down with William Buckley and just do a kind of audiotaped exchange. And Buckley's office called me a couple of days later and said, you know, `He wants to know whether you'd like to think about coming on "Firing Line" on a regular basis, as one of the people at the end of the show who brings a different voice.' So it was like that--as with mo--almost all of my life, it was an accident.
How long did you do that?
Years on and off. First, there were three panelists, then there was one. I think I did it, you know, intermittently, with a lot of other people, like city coun--like public advocate Mark Green and a few others. I think Mike Kingsley did it for a while. So I guess I did it on and off, I don't know...
For the rest of your life, big chunks of the jobs--how long with ABC?
I--14 years with ABC.
How long with "Nightline"?
The whole time.
What else have you done? CBS for a while.
OK. When--I--I stopped working for John Lindsay and split my time between working for Dave Garth, a prominent political consultant, and writing. After about six or seven years, I thought I couldn't do both. I--I just didn't think you could write about politics and do it, particularly because I was more interested in anal--anal--analysis than commentary. I didn't want to write preachments. I wanted to say, `Oh, look what's going on,' and I just didn't think I could do that if one of these guys might be a client someday. So I free-lanced for a couple of years, accidentally stumbled into television on "Sunday Morning" as their first media critic, the Charles Kuralt show; stayed there for about four years, went to ABC and stayed there until I went to CNN in--the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke in early 1998.
And why CNN?
Because I wanted to try to do other things. I mean, "Nightline" is a blessed place to work. It is a terrific show. Ted Koppel and executive producer Tom Bettag are not only two great journalists, they're two great human beings. It's a happy place. But I had done that, and after a while I wanted to see whether or not I could do other things, like town meetings, like trying to anchor a show. And even then, you began to get the sense that news at the networks was not quite as regarded as it used to be in this age of competition and--and pressure on corporate profits. Even though CNN has itself taken--has its own problems, it's still a place where news is the--is w--is what we do. News and public affairs is what we do.
Nobody says in the middle of a--of an election cri--post-election--disputed election, `Well, you know, it's November; it's sweeps month. We--you know, we--we've got to get our comedies and dramas on. So we really can't devote quite as much to this story as we would like to.' At CNN, that is our story.
Is it pronounced Palmeany (pronounced PalMEENEE).
Palmeany (pronounced PalmANEY)?
Palmeany (pronounced PalmANEY).
Where'd that name come from?
Well, it's a--Palmeany is a--is a dish that is served at Russian restaurants. It's a--it's a--basically soup with--with dumplings that have are themselves stuffed with, I guess, veal. The point is that for the last 20 years or more--in one case, actually 30 years--this group has been eating lunch every Wednesday, sa--same people. We started at the Russian Tea Room in New York, in its old incarnation, and we went there on Wednesdays because they served Palmeany on Wednesdays. So...
What's it taste like, that Palmeany?
It's chicken. It's a fancy--it's a chicken soup stock with dumplings. I mean, and you put mustard in it and a little sour cream. It's OK.
Who is he?
...is a dear friend. He is the man--screenwriter/director. He wrote the original story for "Blazing Saddles," "The In-Laws." He wrote "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "The Freshman." This is a funny guy. He also is one of the shrewdest people I know about politics. A show I did last fall called--we called "Unconventional Wisdom," where we invited other people, besides people like me, to talk about politics. And Andrew was just this hilarious guy. I mean, he once described Bill Clinton has half-FDR and half-Li'l Abner. I mean, you ain't going to get that on "Face The Nation." You're just not.
Jerry Della Femina.
Jerry Della Femina is an advertising legend and now successful restaurateur. He is the man who grew up a poor Italian in Brooklyn and claims he became a Republican because he asked his mother, `What's the difference between the parties?' And his mother, a good Democrat, said, `Well, the Republicans are the party of the rich.' And Jerry said, `I wanted to be rich, so I decided I was a Republican.'
Dr. Gerald Imber.
Gerry Imber is a prominent plastic surgeon in Manhattan. He's a guy that all of us think sooner or later we might need the services of; also, a very funny man.
Where'd you meet him?
It's through a con--through a connection when he was an old chum of one of these other people, and we all kind of came together.
Michael Kramer is a political writer. He's written for New York, for Time magazine. He's now writing for the New York Daily News. Again, met him close to 30 years ago.
And just recently, in a column, called George W. Bush a bully.
Yes, that was a--well, that was a personal experience. When Michael was covering the father for--I can't remember if it was New York magazine or Time. He wrote some things very critical of Bush. And W. then was like a lot of family members involved because he was kind of the--the guy who was on patrol looking for defectors and made no dissatisfaction of Michael's writing.
And the last one is Joel Siegel.
Joel Siegel is the film critic--longtime film critic and probably knows more insignificant trivia about sports and movies and old politics--if it happened more than 40 years ago, Joel knows everything. If you ask him where he was last week, not so clear. But they're five very dear friends, and, you know, it's like a tribe.
What do you get out of it, the Wednesday luncheon?
What do you get out of meeting old friends who know your worst flaws and like you nonetheless? I mean, what do you get out of people who care about--care about the lows and celebrate your highs? I mean, what do you get out of friendship? What do you get out of a lifelong commitment?
Well, in your book, you keep talking about wanting to get back to the Wednesday group.
Well, that was real--that's true. I mean, you know, people--one of the things that I tried to do in this book is to be, kind of, very blunt about how one thinks about politics, and--and it's not all high-minded. So, yes, it--three--the thing you're referring to is about 2:30 in the morning, we'd called Florida and the presidency for Bush. And we're talking about, you know, `succeeding,' `son of the president is president,' `John Quincy Adams and Al Gore--shocking.' And part of me is looking at the clock thinking, `OK. Now if we can get this moving, if we can get Gore to concede and Bush to claim victory, I can get out of here.' We're down in Atlanta at CNN headquarters--`I can get on a 6:30 flight to New York. I can go home and sleep for an hour and I can go to my Wednesday lunch.'
Now this is not--this is not the most civic-minded thinking, but I've been--you know, you're on the air for about eight hours straight, you're starting to think a little weird.
You also write in your book about cynicism: cynicism...
...of politicians, the press and popular culture. What are you getting at?
A broader version of what I was talking about earlier; that if you look at the popular culture of, say, the '30s and '40s, when--which we fortunately have records of because it's movies and it's old radio shows and stuff--what you find is a kind of credulity. You don't find anybody questioning stuff. If you think about television of the early '50s, there's been much talked about, but the family life, the--the--the kind of idealized--the biggest problem is whether Ricky and David are going to get to borrow Pop's car to drive to the candy store, and, you know, you can s--you can fairly say this was an--a distorted picture of American life.
But I think if you look at the kind of humor that is around on late-night comedy--and I don't mean cable; I'm talking about the Lenos, the Lettermans, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Jon Stewart, the best--some of them are hilarious, but it is--it is one kind of humor and one kind only, which is assume the worst, assume the most cynical explanation for every conceivable kind of behavior. The way it leaches into public life is you find the least attractive element of somebody's personality, and that's all there is.
So over the years, going back to the very beginning...
...from nine years old, where are the cynical moments, the most important cynical moments?
Well, remember, some of them were deserved. I mean, I--you know, when--when--when people began--here's a good example. In 1962 or '3, the most popular political satire, unprecedented, was something called "The First Family." It was a record album by Vaughan Meader. And it was a satir--it was a look at the--at the first family, the Kennedys. Well, it was completely benign. The jokes--well, of course, for one thing, to be fair, we didn't know about John Kennedy's extracurricular activities. It's an interesting question whether he would have done that kind of album knowing it, but we didn't. So the humor was all about, you know, Caroline's tricycle and 15-mile hikes and just a kind of benign humor.
By within six or seven years, you've got Barbara Garson's "MacBird!," a parody of "Macbeth," which basically, among other things, suggests that Lyndon Johnson had John Kennedy killed. I would say somewhere in there, you--that's a fairly interesting measure of cynicism. Now you also had other chan--you had Mort Sahl, who in retrospect doesn't seem all that mean, but he was sort of making jokes in the Eisenhower era about political hypocrisy, a little bit. But I think the--the darkening, that I talked about earlier, somewhere between the early '60s and the end of the '60s, you had a very different take.
It then became something--and, by the way, I had people--this is another thing you--you can point to Bill Clinton's behavior as helping to accelerate: that if a president of the United States is publicly revealed to be doing what Bill Clinton was doing, it opens a door. And some of the jokes that were going on about that--and I don't mean on c--you know, not underground, on broadcast, regular television--I--as you pointed out, I used to write for the National Lampoon. I am not, by nature, someone who abhors politically incorrect or bawdy humor. I revel in it. Some of those jokes that were being told on the late-night television shows were mind-boggling. And I think you can say, if you're counting up the f--where does cyn--what helped accelerate cynicism, that--that did not help.
Now you participate often, have participated often, in the "Imus" show.
Where does that fit in the--on the cynicism meter?
A very good question because I think a lot of us who do that show are constantly confronted by the argument, `Well, how--if you feel this way, what are you doing on "Imus," particularly because some of his humor is indeed highly politically incorrect?' The--the way that I have explained it or, you know, feel comfortable with, first of all, of course, I point to all the others. I say, `Well, you're going to have to ask Joe Lieberman, Bill Bradley, John Ashcroft, Pete Domenici, Governor Huckabee, you know, all these--some of them who are born-again Christian conservatives, "What are they doing on the show?" as well.' But that's not enough.
The other example is I think that--and I may be wrong about this, but I think that a lot of what Imus does is actually a parody of that kind of humor. It is not meant to be taken seriously. It is meant, in my view, at least the way I hear it, as a kind of version of, `Listen, this is the kind of stupid humor'--I do not--first of all, he's also an equal opportunity offender. I man, there--he will go after everybody. But I--I honestly do think that his humor is as much a kind of tongue-in-cheek way of mocking that kind of stupid humor as it is funny.
Is he what we're really like, though, if you cut away the veil that you get on broadcasting?
No. I think it's different. First of all, he generally does not subject the journalist to that kind of humor. There's--he described it once when he had Anna Quindlen on as `a zone of purity.' Th--he--we're not part of that. I mean--but what he will do is, a--and particularly with politicians as well as journalists--it's a place where people talk more regularly than they would, say, on "Meet The Press" or "Nightline" or CNN. That is, you can't come on that show and come on with your five-point program and get away with it, and that's what I think the great--that's the attraction for people like me and, I think, for a lot of politicians.
Does he pay you to go on?
So you give him your talent for nothing?
Yes. On the other hand, he does happen to mention when a book comes out. But beyond that, it's--you know what it is? First of all, I've often said on the air to him when you do "Imus," the day can only get better. More seriously, it's a great ch--it's an ego challenge. It's fun. I mean, I was raised--we talked about being raised in New York. We did not--my schools were not places of violence. They were places where you s--you sat down in recesses and, in the black community, it's called `doing the doesn'ts.' No I don't know--we didn't have a name for it, but it's basically--insult humor is a part and parcel of growing up, I think, on the streets of New York. So Imus is just like a middle-aged version of what I did as a kid.
How old are your kids?
I have a 28-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son.
Casey and Dave.
What do they do?
Casey left law school and is writing in New York, and Dave is taking time out from college. He's probably going to be doing some community service stuff, and I suspect someday he's going to wind up either as a great chef or as a comedy writer, one of those...
What's the difference in their cynicism levels and yours?
Well, they--they grew up in it. I mean, they never had it--they never were exposed to any other kind of culture. So it's almost beyond that. That's almost a given. There's no lesson to unlearn. On the other hand, they're both fascinated by politics. Casey worked in politics for a while, took a few months off, worked on the Hill.
For Chuck Schumer, who's a congressman, in high school this was. And then in college, took a--some time out from college to go to Little Rock and work on the Clinton campaign, which she left in--she left cynical because of what she experienced. She had--she said something very interesting to me. I went down to Little Rock during the campaign and obviously took her out to dinner, and she'd been there maybe four days and said, `You know what's interesting is people come down here saying they want to save the world, and then in two days they're fighting about their office space,' which I thought was a pretty swift understanding of--of--of some of the reality of politics.
Your friendship with Joe Lieberman goes back to when?
What was he like then?
Here's what I once said about Joe at a reunion. I said, `We all knew Joe Lieberman was going to be a United States senator, but a respected United States senator?' Joe was much more political. This is very different from the normal experience. I think Joe became way more independent once he got to the Senate. I mean, he was somebody--we had two people in our class who became United States senators. One was Joe Lieberman, who everybody knew--his nickname, in fact, in law school was `senator,' right?
The other one was Paul Tsongas, the quietest, most self-effacing, most invisible member of our class, which, you know, when I--when I--in '92, when I was calling around to classmates saying, `What do you remember about Tsongas,' and, `Ahh, wasn't he a waiter in the dining room?' That was it. So the most likely senator and the least likely senator. But I think what--what happened with Lieberman was he just really began to stake out a very u--very independent kind of--of framework.
I wondered if you were getting at what we have been doing for the last 20-something years when you wrote about public institutions getting too much exposure and that familiarity breeds contempt. And what do you think of the Supreme Court--Supreme Court going on television?
W--well, as you know, I'm a huge fan of C-SPAN. Just watch--would rather watch it than almost anything, except "The Sopranos" and a really fine baseball game. What I was getting at was I--I think one of the reasons the Supreme Court has historically been held in--in high regard and why, toward the end of this campaign, a great majority of Americans named that as the one institution they have confidence in to deal with--this was before the decision--was because we don't see them on television.
And what I mean by that is when I--when I say familiarity breeds contempt, there probably is something--I--I think--you know, I'm very happy we televise the House. I'm very happy we televise the Senate. But there is--there is a cost, and the cost is the sense of mystery, the sense that this--these people are engaged in something beyond the give-and-take of normal (unintelligible) or--or discourse.
When you watch the Senate, as a s--as a se--as a series of sketches, when they were debating, say, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or some major piece of legislation, you have a sense of distance; you have a sense that they are somewhere other than where the rest of us are. Once they're a bunch of people, you know, with microphones clipped to their lapels, all wearing red ties, they become a little ordinary. One of the things I think that people--people argued about Clinton, who was a president--first president who actually grew up with television, was he may--he may have been too much among us. And I think actually that may have been very smart because he realized that the age of heroic presidents was over, at least certainly not--not any of the crop we've got.
So with the Supreme Court, you know, how many people have ever seen the Supreme Court? I never have. Never have seen a Supreme Court case argued, never. You know, if you're a tourist or a reporter, you go there, the curtain opens and these nine folks in whi--in black robes step out. And the very fact that they don't come to us, through this incredibly intimate, familiar medium, I think has given them a certain kind of--of stature. Now how much they lost because of this decision, we'll find out.
But I--I realize that this is not what my colleagues want to hear--`Oh, we're for opening up everything all the time.' I don't know. I'm not sure. I--you know, look, I don't think that it would turn the Supreme Court into nine guys mu--or ladies mugging for the camera. I think I'm--I think I kind of like it this way, hmm? Didn't you find listening to that, that when the--when they were debating those two cases--wasn't there a kind of amazing--like we were being led into the--I don't know--some amazing council of elders? I was intrigued because I'd never--I'd never gone through this.
Well, if you live in Washington, you could hear a weekly argument...
...on our radio station we put on.
And I--by the way, I--you know, that--that's fine. And someday--I once asked Rehnquist, `Are we ever going to have television?' And he said something like, `Apre Mall would deluge.' But anoth--I think at least one of the younger justices...
David Souter, `Over my dead body.'
...had said--had said, `Not in my lifetime.'
`Over my dead body.'
Yeah, `over my dead body.'
It's the same thing.
Yeah, OK. That's right, it is.
We have just 60 seconds. You have a program--a regular program nightly on CNN at...
"Greenfield at Large" at 10:30 Eastern time.
Is this--is this you? Is this everything you've wanted to do?
It's one of the things I've wanted to do, is to have a conversation show with people who don't come on armed with their talking points and blast faxes, people from different walks of life: writers, actors, athletes, teachers who can actually talk interestingly and originally about what's on the national conversation. I've had this idea for a long time. But, you know, I love writing books. I've got a--you know, at--at my age, I've got to get the pace up a little bit to actually write what I want to write. But I've nev--I wa--I--to put it bluntly to you, I do wake up every day and think, `You know, I--I've been one hell of a lucky person to be able to do what I get to do.'
Here's the cover of the book, "Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow!" by Jeff Greenfield. Thank you very much for joining us.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.